support-tct-thankgiving-banner

 

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.

confused-child-620x400

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.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The fact/opinion distinction goes back to Hume, who argued that descriptive propositions (propositions containing “is” or “is not”) and prescriptive or normative propositions (propositions containing “ought” and “ought not”) are irreducibly different and that an “ought” cannot be derived from an “is.”

    This raises some interesting questions. Thus, Miss Anscombe imagined a housewife, a disciple of Hume, explaining to her greengrocer, “Truth consists in either relations of ideas, as that 20/- = £1, or matters of fact, as that I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill. So it doesn’t apply to such a proposition as that I ‘owe’ you such-and-such a sum.”

    Again, how do we analyse propositions like, “The pot plant needs watering” or “You should try to get an early night”?

    The apparently obvious stands in need of a lot of explaining.

    • Jonathan Watson

      The statement “One cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'” seems somewhat tautological, for it would hold true, then, that the fact “one cannot derive an ought from an is” is itself an ought, based on the idea that there is no connection between “ought” and “is”….

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”” is not a normative or prescriptive statement. It is a statement about the “relations of ideas” as Hume calls it, in other words a logical proposition about the way language works.

        For Hume, as for all empiricists, there are truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. “There are no two square numbers one of which is double the other,” or “All mammals suckle their young” are examples of an analytic truth

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The fact/opinion distinction goes back to Hume, who argued that descriptive propositions (propositions containing “is” or “is not”) and prescriptive or normative propositions (propositions containing “ought” and “ought not”) are irreducibly different and that an “ought” cannot be derived from an “is.”

    This raises some interesting questions. Thus, Miss Anscombe imagined a housewife, a disciple of Hume, explaining to her greengrocer, “Truth consists in either relations of ideas, as that 20/- = £1, or matters of fact, as that I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill. So it doesn’t apply to such a proposition as that I ‘owe’ you such-and-such a sum.”

    Again, how do we analyse propositions like, “The pot plant needs watering” or “You should try to get an early night”?

    The apparently obvious stands in need of a lot of explaining.

    • Jonathan Watson

      The statement “One cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'” seems somewhat tautological, for it would hold true, then, that the fact “one cannot derive an ought from an is” is itself an ought, based on the idea that there is no connection between “ought” and “is”….

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”” is not a normative or prescriptive statement. It is a statement about the “relations of ideas” as Hume calls it, in other words a logical proposition about the way language works.

        For Hume, as for all empiricists, there are truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. “There are no two square numbers one of which is double the other,” or “All mammals suckle their young” are examples of an analytic truth

  • Manfred

    “If we can’t get it straight with regard to the truth about marriage and the family, we really don’t have much to say about anything else.” This quote is from a speech which Cdl. Raymond Burke gave recently in England. We live in a world which has not heard a word from the Church concerning catechetics and moral theology for fifty years. We live in a world of opinions where everyone is his/her own “pope”. We have been secularized.

  • Manfred

    “If we can’t get it straight with regard to the truth about marriage and the family, we really don’t have much to say about anything else.” This quote is from a speech which Cdl. Raymond Burke gave recently in England. We live in a world which has not heard a word from the Church concerning catechetics and moral theology for fifty years. We live in a world of opinions where everyone is his/her own “pope”. We have been secularized.

  • maineman

    Existence exists, reality is real, and truth is the adequation of the intellect to reality (Aquinas).

    These things are obvious to a housewife in Topeka with a below average IQ but a source of confusion for our liberal ruling class, the intellectual elite who, by denying them in favor of their own preferred, projected reality, might just as well be arguing that they themselves do not exist.

    A woman from Croatia was on the radio yesterday and made an interesting observation. She said that the chief success of the Communists was their ability to erase people’s memory, so that the past no longer existed for them.

    That’s what all this is about, and that’s how you can tell that we are facing the same enemy now, in liberalism or “progressivism”, that Yugoslavia was back then.

    • housewife in Topeka

      The denial of truth makes my heart hurt. Which is a fact I can prove by pointing to face
      number 6 on the Universal Pain Scale when I am at the doctor’s office.

  • maineman

    Existence exists, reality is real, and truth is the adequation of the intellect to reality (Aquinas).

    These things are obvious to a housewife in Topeka with a below average IQ but a source of confusion for our liberal ruling class, the intellectual elite who, by denying them in favor of their own preferred, projected reality, might just as well be arguing that they themselves do not exist.

    A woman from Croatia was on the radio yesterday and made an interesting observation. She said that the chief success of the Communists was their ability to erase people’s memory, so that the past no longer existed for them.

    That’s what all this is about, and that’s how you can tell that we are facing the same enemy now, in liberalism or “progressivism”, that Yugoslavia was back then.

    • housewife in Topeka

      The denial of truth makes my heart hurt. Which is a fact I can prove by pointing to face
      number 6 on the Universal Pain Scale when I am at the doctor’s office.

  • grump

    What is a “racist comment” and who are the “minorities”? Please define your terms. Are whites a “minority” in the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and in Ferguson, MO, for example? Obviously, a fact. Then, ipso facto, if a black person says something negative about a white person in a particular environment where blacks are a majority, then is that “racist”? Is it “racist” to assert that Obama is a lousy president? Or does his race trump the right to express oneself?

    In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

    • Kano Hansen

      As a Person of Color -light pink to be exact- I resent your resentment.

    • Jonathan Watson

      “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

      A nice self-refuting statement by M. Aurelius. When I say “self-refuting,” it is most completely expressed as, “If this is true – ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact,’ it is making a claim of fact, which then negates itself. In addition, if ‘Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth,’ is indeed, true, then it is only a perspective, and hence, not true….and thus, negates itself.

  • grump

    What is a “racist comment” and who are the “minorities”? Please define your terms. Are whites a “minority” in the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and in Ferguson, MO, for example? Obviously, a fact. Then, ipso facto, if a black person says something negative about a white person in a particular environment where blacks are a majority, then is that “racist”? Is it “racist” to assert that Obama is a lousy president? Or does his race trump the right to express oneself?

    In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

    • Kano Hansen

      As a Person of Color -light pink to be exact- I resent your resentment.

    • Jonathan Watson

      “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

      A nice self-refuting statement by M. Aurelius. When I say “self-refuting,” it is most completely expressed as, “If this is true – ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact,’ it is making a claim of fact, which then negates itself. In addition, if ‘Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth,’ is indeed, true, then it is only a perspective, and hence, not true….and thus, negates itself.

  • Rich in MN

    Prof. Smith, regarding #5 above, you may have an interesting conversation with your colleague, Fr. David Smith. I am not saying he would disagree with your implied conclusion, but I do think you would have an interesting conversation — beginning, of course, with you two coming to a common understanding of your subject, object and verb.

    In addition to your dichotomy of fact/opinion, I think there needs to be a 3-fold division of types of fact.
    First, there are arbitrary facts. For example, the statement “There are 100 yards from goal line to goal line on a football field” is a fact based on an agreed-upon game with agreed-upon parameters.

    Secondly, there are conceptual/relational and empirical facts such as 2+2=4, and objects falling near the Earth’s surface accelerate at 9.8 m/s^2.
    Thirdly, there are facts predicated on an underlying philosophical principle, assumption or presumption — which sometimes requires some ‘drilling’ to reach. For example, you might drill down #1 above as follows: Stabbing babies with bayonets is wrong. Why? Because it is wrong to kill and/or needlessly inflict suffering on another. Why? Because humans have inherent dignity. Why? This is self evident based on our own instinct to survive and avoid pain, and/or this truth has been revealed by God. These third types of facts are most crucial to understand and, sadly, most easily dismissed as “opinion.”

  • Rich in MN

    Prof. Smith, regarding #5 above, you may have an interesting conversation with your colleague, Fr. David Smith. I am not saying he would disagree with your implied conclusion, but I do think you would have an interesting conversation — beginning, of course, with you two coming to a common understanding of your subject, object and verb.

    In addition to your dichotomy of fact/opinion, I think there needs to be a 3-fold division of types of fact.
    First, there are arbitrary facts. For example, the statement “There are 100 yards from goal line to goal line on a football field” is a fact based on an agreed-upon game with agreed-upon parameters.

    Secondly, there are conceptual/relational and empirical facts such as 2+2=4, and objects falling near the Earth’s surface accelerate at 9.8 m/s^2.
    Thirdly, there are facts predicated on an underlying philosophical principle, assumption or presumption — which sometimes requires some ‘drilling’ to reach. For example, you might drill down #1 above as follows: Stabbing babies with bayonets is wrong. Why? Because it is wrong to kill and/or needlessly inflict suffering on another. Why? Because humans have inherent dignity. Why? This is self evident based on our own instinct to survive and avoid pain, and/or this truth has been revealed by God. These third types of facts are most crucial to understand and, sadly, most easily dismissed as “opinion.”

  • Randall B. Smith

    The Author Replies:

    “We live in a world which has not heard a word from the Church concerning catechetics and moral theology for fifty years.” Dear Sir, I take it you mean we haven’t hear a word from the Church OTHER THAN (a) the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, (b) John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” and his entire teaching on the “theology of the body” in defense of “Humanae Vitae” (c) and of course, if you go back fifty years, we’d have to include “Humanae Vitae” itself, (c) John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”, and (d) Cardinal Ratzinger’s numerous instructions from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to name just a few from countless other examples. I take it you mean there has been “not a word from the Church” OTHER THAN those.

    As to the notion that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth,” I take it that this is merely an opinion on the part of the writer, not a fact, merely his perspective, not the truth. Do people who make such comments REALLY believe that they’re not stating a “truth”? If they don’t, it’s hard to understand why they make such comments so firmly and with such certainty. A universal skepticism is self-refuting. It’s the equivalent of saying: “I know that nothing can be known” — which is, of course, an obvious (and really silly) contradiction.

    • Paul Vander Voort

      To your first point: you may both be correct. The information is there if sought out, but are most Catholics that engaged? What are they hearing from Rev. Nice on Sunday? Do they want to remain in denial intentionally?

      To your second point: “Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see” is my preference. The statement may be self serving (verify independently) and you may not get the full picture from your glimpse/pov.

  • Randall B. Smith

    The Author Replies:

    “We live in a world which has not heard a word from the Church concerning catechetics and moral theology for fifty years.” Dear Sir, I take it you mean we haven’t hear a word from the Church OTHER THAN (a) the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, (b) John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” and his entire teaching on the “theology of the body” in defense of “Humanae Vitae” (c) and of course, if you go back fifty years, we’d have to include “Humanae Vitae” itself, (c) John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”, and (d) Cardinal Ratzinger’s numerous instructions from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to name just a few from countless other examples. I take it you mean there has been “not a word from the Church” OTHER THAN those.

    As to the notion that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth,” I take it that this is merely an opinion on the part of the writer, not a fact, merely his perspective, not the truth. Do people who make such comments REALLY believe that they’re not stating a “truth”? If they don’t, it’s hard to understand why they make such comments so firmly and with such certainty. A universal skepticism is self-refuting. It’s the equivalent of saying: “I know that nothing can be known” — which is, of course, an obvious (and really silly) contradiction.

    • Paul Vander Voort

      To your first point: you may both be correct. The information is there if sought out, but are most Catholics that engaged? What are they hearing from Rev. Nice on Sunday? Do they want to remain in denial intentionally?

      To your second point: “Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see” is my preference. The statement may be self serving (verify independently) and you may not get the full picture from your glimpse/pov.

  • Francis Miller

    Fact is or is not. Right from wrong is in reference to objective principle. Confusing these fundamental concepts of reason are not done by accident.

  • Francis Miller

    Fact is or is not. Right from wrong is in reference to objective principle. Confusing these fundamental concepts of reason are not done by accident.

  • Aqua

    In conversations with atheists on the topic of objective morality in the absence of a Law-Giver (God), I have discovered on more than one occasion that the atheist is thoroughly untroubled by your article’s conclusion. Objective morality IS determined by majority vote and the power of the “gun” to enforce said vote on the minority. I had expected pangs of conscience when I forced them to see the ultimate destination of their lunatic meta-physical world-view. Sorrowfully, no. They defend the craziness you expose; the horrifying examples you provide.

    This is the inevitable conclusion of Darwinism, that only the strong survive, AND that only the strong SHOULD survive. They posit that the “species” always, ultimately, selects correctly. I once asked such a person if, then, the Holocaust could be considered a moral act. His answer? He didn’t hesitate to say, yes, if that was a course selected by a majority, then a cleansing of the species would be a great good.

    Get ready for this. We have removed God from our midst and the dregs of God’s goodness are now almost all gone. Society is almost purely Godless and it is going to get real ugly soon.

    In my opinion.

  • Aqua

    In conversations with atheists on the topic of objective morality in the absence of a Law-Giver (God), I have discovered on more than one occasion that the atheist is thoroughly untroubled by your article’s conclusion. Objective morality IS determined by majority vote and the power of the “gun” to enforce said vote on the minority. I had expected pangs of conscience when I forced them to see the ultimate destination of their lunatic meta-physical world-view. Sorrowfully, no. They defend the craziness you expose; the horrifying examples you provide.

    This is the inevitable conclusion of Darwinism, that only the strong survive, AND that only the strong SHOULD survive. They posit that the “species” always, ultimately, selects correctly. I once asked such a person if, then, the Holocaust could be considered a moral act. His answer? He didn’t hesitate to say, yes, if that was a course selected by a majority, then a cleansing of the species would be a great good.

    Get ready for this. We have removed God from our midst and the dregs of God’s goodness are now almost all gone. Society is almost purely Godless and it is going to get real ugly soon.

    In my opinion.

  • Tony in PA

    Two things grabbed my attention early in this article ; the question if all men are created equal and the mention of George Orwell.
    I can remember the pigs in ” Animal Farm ” explaining that all animals were created equal, but that some were more equal. The idea that all men are created equal is nothing if not a religious idea. A society without this belief is certainly not compatible with an Athenian – inspired democracy. Maybe it can have an oligarchy of some sort. It will certainly be totalitarian. It’s laws will be numerous and arbitrary in their nature and application. The idea will be that anybody at any time is a probable lawbreaker. Certain elites, the ” more equals “, will make that determination because individuals will have no faculty for moral reasoning even if the laws were based on something like Natural Law.

  • Tony in PA

    Two things grabbed my attention early in this article ; the question if all men are created equal and the mention of George Orwell.
    I can remember the pigs in ” Animal Farm ” explaining that all animals were created equal, but that some were more equal. The idea that all men are created equal is nothing if not a religious idea. A society without this belief is certainly not compatible with an Athenian – inspired democracy. Maybe it can have an oligarchy of some sort. It will certainly be totalitarian. It’s laws will be numerous and arbitrary in their nature and application. The idea will be that anybody at any time is a probable lawbreaker. Certain elites, the ” more equals “, will make that determination because individuals will have no faculty for moral reasoning even if the laws were based on something like Natural Law.

  • Pingback: We Are Synthetic Children & Agree with Dolce & Gabbana()

  • Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: "Fifth Sunday of Lent" | St. John()

  • Howard

    So you’re not willing to condemn racist comments IN GENERAL, only against minorities?

  • Fr. John Higgins

    Prof. McBrayer is welcome to his opinions, which I am sure he thinks are “right”.

  • Veritas

    In that relativistic society fact belongs to the powerful and opinions to the rest