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Morality, Facts, and Opinions

Even those who do not torture themselves by the daily reading of The New York Times may have heard about the article “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” by Justin McBrayer, a philosophy professor who complained about quizzes his son’s second-grade class were given to teach them to distinguish, either/or fashion, between “facts” and “opinions.”

Consider the following list of propositions from worksheet materials McBrayer found on-line:

* Copying homework assignments is wrong.

* All men are created equal.

* It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

* It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

* Drug dealers belong in prison.

In each case, the “right” answer is that these are mere “opinions.” “The explanation on offer,” says Prof. McBrayer, “is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseam: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.”

No wonder the majority of children are moral relativists when they reach college. They’ve had it drilled into their heads by the same sort of people who teach children that “it’s a fact” everyone in Europe was terrified of sailing off the end of the flat earth until Christopher Columbus proved them wrong – a complete falsehood, by the way, since everyone had known the world was round since at least the time of the ancient Greeks.

Perhaps more distressing is a passage Prof. McBrayer does not quote, in which the same web site provides the following odd example of a “fact”: “There are 10,000 feet in a mile.” Here is the explanation:

Even though this statement is incorrect, I teach students that this is still a fact, even though it is not true. When students define a fact as any statement that can be proven to be true or false, they will concern themselves less with whether the statement is accurate and focus more on whether each statement can be proven. Hence, they will better be able to identify facts and opinions.

George Orwell, pray for us.

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In the interests of clarity, I’d like to suggest a few humble additions to the students’ quiz:

1. Saying it is wrong for soldiers to throw babies up and catch them on their bayonets for sport is: (A) a true statement, or (B) mere opinion?

2. Saying it wrong to rape and beat and kill a thirteen-year-old girl is: (A) a true statement, or (B) nothing but a personal opinion? (A professor of mine had a class that voted unanimously every class period for an entire semester that you could not say this was wrong, since agreeing it was wrong would have been to admit the existence of at least one objective moral truth.

3. Stating that it was morally wrong for the German government to systematically kill 6 million Jews is: (A) about as true a statement as you can make, or (B) just my personal opinion, but who am I to judge.

4. Claiming it is wrong to make racist comments about minorities is: (A) true, or (B) totally up to you? (Yeah, right.)

5. Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people. This statement is: (A) fact, or (B) opinion? (I’d be interested in the “proof” offered by the teacher who insists the answer is A.)

6. There are a number of scientists who doubt that global warming is as dire as predicted or that it is being caused by human activity. Is this (A) fact, or (B) opinion? (Actually, this is a trick question. The answer, of course, is “fact.” It’s a provable fact that some people doubt it. That of course would merely be their opinion – or would it? See the example above about there being 10,000 feet in a mile. If being subject to proof (eventually) is the only criterion, then we can have dual, opposing “facts.”)

7. A teacher tells her students that it would be “wrong” to fill out the questions on their “fact/opinion” quiz by simply giving the teacher what they think she wants to hear. This statement on her part would be: (A) fact, or (B) merely her opinion, having no more binding character on anyone else than, say, her opinion about the best flavor of ice cream.

Not only could you not successfully navigate the difficult social issues of the day with a mind-set formed in this way, you couldn’t run a school this way for five minutes. Schools have all sorts of rules that they think justified by more than mere “opinion.”

Things wouldn’t be any better, though, if the teachers and administrators admitted, “Yes, these are merely our ‘opinions.’” It would show that they were willing to enforce laws on others on the basis of nothing more than their own personal “opinions” or “feelings,” not on any rationally defensible judgment about what is “right” and. “wrong.”

This being the case, I fear that, should such persons be questioned on the wisdom of these matters, they would likely respond in one of two ways: either (A) by being grossly offended that anyone would dare question their good intentions and personal opinions, and/or (B) end the conversation curtly with the send-off line: “Well, you’re entitled to your own opinion, and I’m entitled to mine” – “opinions” being something that cannot really be rationally critiqued unless they had something to do with “facts,” which all these people seem to agree, they don’t. Even worse, as the “10,000 feet in one mile” examples suggests, people are increasingly entitled, it seems, to their own “facts.”

Although it is said that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, increasingly some opinions are “more equal than others,” especially if the person with the right sort of opinion is making the rules – rules that are increasingly insulated from any sort of rational critique.

This is a troubling fact – in my opinion.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.