Several weeks back, I wrote a satirical piece critical of a quiz mentioned in a New York Times article entitled “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” in which second graders were asked to distinguish in an either-or fashion between “facts” and “opinions.” Let me make clear that, in certain circumstances, this distinction is both valuable and appropriate. Indeed, one often wishes the reporters at The New York Times were regularly tested on how well they understood the difference between “facts” and “opinions.”
Yet, by the same token, sorting all statements into either “facts” or “opinions” can foster an unhealthy tendency to assume that “truth” is something that can be said only of statements or propositions, which can be proven by demonstrable reasoning to be certain.
On this view, statements or propositions that cannot be certified as certain get relegated to the category of “opinion,” which, for some, makes them of little or no value. Sure, everyone has a right to his or her own “opinion,” but then again, no one should be able to force his “opinion” on someone else. So it matters a great deal in this climate what gets ranked “fact” and what gets relegated to mere “opinion.”
It’s clear we’re still laboring under the spell cast over the world by that demon Descartes who convinced the public-at-large that the word “knowledge” could only be used of ideas that were certain – so certain that they couldn’t be doubted. And what sorts of things couldn’t be doubted? Well Descartes was pretty clear on this: mathematics. 2 + 2 = 4.
And what about all those things that aren’t quite as “certain” or “clear and distinct” as 2 + 2 = 4? Well, these things may interest some people, but you can’t call it knowledge. Not that stuff you get in, say, poetry or literature, or from the years of experience and collected wisdom of someone like your grandfather. You can’t call any of that stuff “true.” You just call it someone’s “opinion.” You can “respect” it, but you can’t take it too seriously. That is to say, you can’t take it any more seriously than you take someone’s tastes in shoes or men’s hats.
And thus, for many of my students, when the question of whether you can know any objective moral “truths” comes up, the intense mental pressure of being able to affirm that they can know these things with absolute, demonstrable certainty of the 2 + 2 = 4 type makes them hesitate and then wilt. “Well, who can say? I mean, can you really know these things?” And of course, that’s just the “out” they need. Not being able to know with certainty allows them to forswear responsibility for their own moral judgments.
The British philosopher Stephen Toulmin summed up the problem thus. The general assumption is: “There are two large classes into which sentences. . .can be divided. On the one hand, there are those sentences, to be dignified by the title of ‘statements,’ which express propositions; which are the concern of the sciences, and of those everyday activities which are like the sciences in having to do with facts and the stating of facts. . . .These, and these alone, [it is generally assumed] can be spoken of as true or false. . . .On the other hand, there are those sentences to which it is advisable to deny the title of statements, which do not express propositions; which are the concern of, for instance, ethics, aesthetics, poetry and cognate activities; which express or evince attitudes; which are only misleadingly couched in the indicative mood; and whose meaning consists in the affective or persuasive effect which their utterance has on a hearer’s attitudes. Since these sentences do not express propositions, there is no question of their being true or false.”
The view Toulmin is describing often goes under the label “logical positivism.” And although this view was long ago proven to be philosophically untenable, that hasn’t kept it from retaining a vice-like grip on the public. One might have thought that a position so devoted to “facts” and so dismissive of the “persuasive effect which their utterance has on a hearer’s attitudes” would long ago have been abandoned under the weight of its own demand for demonstrable “facts.” But such is clearly not the case.
People grow enamored of philosophies that allow them maximum scope to do as they please. And philosophies that tend to support the interests of the wealthy and powerful over the weak and defenseless often have a longer shelf life than they deserve.
Why do I call this a philosophy of the wealthy and powerful? Because just exactly whose interest does it serve to claim that the only “facts” are those that science and business affirm – the sorts of things one puts on spread sheets and quantifies on graphs – while moral claims insisting that all such matters should be judged according to some higher standard of justice are nothing more than “opinion”?
And whose interests are served when someone like Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker claims that “dignity is a useless concept” and that ethics (specifically bioethics) “can do just fine with the principle of personal autonomy”?
You think “personal autonomy” is just fine when you’re someone at the top of the pecking order, not necessarily when you’re the one struggling along at the bottom – when you’re the person in need who depends upon others to do things like keep their promises and act generously, not merely in accord with their own “personal autonomy.”
Moral relativism is just so – convenient. Just the sort of thing a predator culture needs to justify its every appetite for domination. How much more challenging would it be if we accepted the notion that, even when we can’t be certain, we still have the responsibility to choose wisely and to be answerable for our choices to someone other than ourselves.