MORAL KNOWLEDGE: FACT VERSUS OPINION

by michael on March 8, 2015

 

While writing my book The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Talk About Values with Children, I sought out and otherwise found hundreds of marvelous inspiring quotations. I have probably fifty or so in my book. The following quotation, from my dear friend Alice Abrams, is one of the most inspiring. Noting her granddaughter was looking attentively at a photograph of a ballerina’s shoe speckled with blood, Alice said, “In life, as in dance, grace glides on blistered feet.” Pretty good, huh?

Another quote that has impacted me and which I have repeated often in my talks is this one, attributed to the great mathematician, Archimedes: “How many legs does a dog have if you call one of them tail?  Answer: a dog has four legs, no matter what else you call a leg.”

The point of the second quotation is a powerful refutation of the notion, the mindset, the ideology—whatever you want to call it—that facts and reality are whatever you want them to be. Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This is a fact. Muslim extremists attacked the United States on September 1, 2001. No one else did. That is a fact.

The operational theme of the dog legs quote is that facts exist; that is, there is such a thing as a fact. Another way of phrasing this reality is that there is such a thing as truth. Truth exists. Some things are true and some things are false. Several noteworthy people have been attributed with saying: “You may have your opinion but you can’t have your facts, and facts are stubborn things.”

True statement. Truth exists. Truth is different from opinion. In my school classes I teach to young children the skill of differentiating facts from opinion by doing the following exercise: “What are the facts? What is your opinion?” Opinions not grounded in facts are worthless and self-indulgent. Opinions on significant issues that are not grounded in facts are morally worthless. People who cannot distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, have little to no moral value.

Thus, given the above statement of my opinions, based on facts, it was with great enthusiasm that I read moments ago the essay Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts by Justin P. McBrayer on the New York Times website,

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/?_r=0  in a category titled The Opinionator: The Stone

The essay begins with a photograph of George Washington taking the oath of office. Under the photograph is the caption: “George Washington, depicted here taking the oath of office in 1789, was the first president of the United States. Fact, opinion or both?”

McBrayer writes:

What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

I have experienced this phenomenon in many of my classes over the past two decades. I asked students, young children, if it was wrong to steal money. Answers included, “it depends on how much money was stolen,” “how much money the person had before his or her money was stolen,” or “how much the thief needed the money.” These answers affirm McBrayer’s experience.

Let’s take a more dramatic example: Is it wrong to hang a person because he is gay? Is it wrong to stone to death an eleven-year old girl because she was raped by her uncle? Answers: well, it depends. It is wrong in the United States (at least as of today) but as for Iran, Yemen, Somalia… you get the picture… who is to say? The general response is: who am I to judge what others do?

McBrayer then wades, courageously, in my opinion, which in these days is a fact, regrettably, into the murky waters of facts versus opinions in the context of values. He then relates this distinction to what is taught in the program called Common Core.

McBrayer writes:

How does the dichotomy between fact and opinion relate to morality? I learned the answer to this question only after I investigated my son’s homework (and other examples of assignments online). Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here’s a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?


— Copying homework assignments is wrong.

— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

— All men are created equal.

So, values become opinions, and thus, by definition are not facts. Apply that deductive reasoning and you get results like this:

It is just an opinion that it is wrong for the strong to beat up the weak. It’s not a fact.

Well, well, well!

Then how about this example:

It’s not wrong, therefore, to discriminate against — fill in the blank a group you think is not privileged. Discrimination is just an exercise in asserting your legitimate opinion. !!!

No one, of course, would say that such an ‘opinion’ is valid moral opinion. That it is not moral would be asserted as a fact. Almost everyone, if not everyone, would say that it is false; that it is a fact that it is wrong to discriminate against someone just because of fill in the blank color, ethnicity and so forth.

One point here is a powerful point, I suggest: People advance opinions and ideologies they really do not believe, or they do not believe it applies to them.

Many times youngsters have begun a conversation by saying it is wrong to judge. After some gentle questioning, they admit they judge all the time and that making judgments are vital to existence and vital to being a good person.

So why do they say things they do not believe?

Because they are taught to say things they do not believe… and things they should not believe. And that weakens children and makes them vulnerable to other chaps who do not engage in such niceties and uncertainties.

Indeed to assert that a fact is only something that can be proved is.. dare I write it…. just an opinion.

I could go on and on about this but I will conclude now by making two points:

  1. Obliterating the distinction between moral facts and moral opinions creates weak people. Weak people are, of course, good for governments but not good for the people themselves.
  2. Obliterating the distinction between moral facts and moral opinions favors the tyrants, the aggressors, the manipulators and the thugs, never their victims.

Please read McBrayer’s completer article.

More later

 

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