How Political Correctness Makes Us Dumb

The other day I was lecturing in my critical thinking class on the difference between arguments and explanations. An explanation is an account of something whose truth is not in dispute. So, for example, if you ask me why the Packers won the Super Bowl, I can give you several different answers. But the simplest one is this: they scored more points than the Steelers. We do not disagree as to whether the Packers were victorious. I am not trying to prove that. All I am doing is giving you a simple explanation as to why the Packers won.

On the other hand, if you asked me why I think belief in God is rational because you doubt God’s existence and may want to believe, I can give you several reasons. If did that, I would be offering you an argument (or a set of arguments) for the veracity of a belief that is in dispute between us.

In class, I took an example from the textbook (Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic, 3.1e) and asked my students whether the following is an argument or an explanation: “Men pitch baseballs faster than women because they have more upper body muscle strength.” The right answer is that it is an explanation, because a reason is offered – “men have more upper body muscle strength” – in order to explain a fact that is not in dispute, “men pitch baseballs faster than women.” Or so I thought.

My students, like virtually the whole lot of them at Baylor, are bright and eager to learn. But like most of their peers at other institutions, they have been formed by a wider culture, including the schools they attended and the media they consume, that has taught them that universal judgments about the nature of things is inherently unjust. There is, of course, some wisdom in this, but it is only wise insofar as it depends on universal judgments.

So, for example, it would be wrong to issue a negative judgment about someone simply because of his race without knowing anything further about the person. But, ironically, the reason why this particular judgment is wrong is precisely because we have made a universal judgment about all human beings: each of us possesses intrinsic dignity because of the nature we share.

Of course, if a human person commits an immoral act, we judge the actor as wrong. But we do so precisely because we respect his humanity and the power of moral choice that all human beings possess by nature. Though some human beings cannot exercise that power because of immaturity or illness, they are nevertheless moral subjects deserving of moral respect. They possess no less a human nature than do their mature and healthy peers.

Universally judged to throw fastest: Aroldis Chapman of the Reds

Now back to baseball.

Well trained by their cultural teachers in spotting and reflexively condemning universal judgments, some of my students resisted the right answer because they thought it a mere prejudice. They seemed to think that to say that “men pitch baseballs faster than women” is to wallow in an ancient irrationality not worthy of our enlightened present. In that case, they would be wrong.

The ability of the human mind to make true universal judgments is a power that distinguishes human beings from other things like baboons, snails, and rocks. Thus, my students’ cultural teachers, though they mean well, have done my students no favors. For anyone who provides assistance in atrophying the mind’s proper function is an enemy of education, even if in his heart he thinks he’s a friend.

The right answer is right because there is a difference between a term’s comprehension and a term’s extension. So, for example, if I say America is a rich country, I am saying something that is comprehensively true about America as a whole, but not something that is extensively true of each and every American in the population.

The two most important terms in the class problem are “men” and “women.” If I were to say that all men throw a baseball faster than all women, I would be talking about the extension of the terms “men” and “women.” That is, I would be talking about each and every man and woman. In that case, my claim that “all men throw a baseball faster than all women” is clearly false, since there are individual women who throw a baseball faster than individual men. On the other hand, when I say that “men pitch baseballs faster than women because they have more upper body muscle strength” I am referring to what is comprehensively true of men and women. And in that case, it is uncontrovertibly true that men in general pitch baseballs faster than women in general.

The distinction between extension and comprehension is clear, easy to understand, and essential to the proper exercise of our mental powers. This is why political correctness makes us dumb.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).