Philosopher Justin McBrayer says it’s no surprise to him that young people come to college thinking that there are no such things as moral facts, only opinions. What surprises him is where they are taught this nihilism: public schools. Excerpt:
Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.
It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.
I’m in Dallas today meeting with students at The Covenant School, a classical Christian academy. Last night I had dinner with some Covenant teachers, administrators, and parents. They shared with me the stark challenges of countering this kind of thinking among kids who are raised in Christian homes. The popular culture that pushes this line is so powerful.
I’m talking about Dante with the high schoolers here this morning. My thought is: thank God for classical Christian schools. They are among the countercultural institutions that we desperately need to push back, to give our kids a chance at moral sanity in a world of moral chaos. I have long believed in classical Christian schooling, but being here seeing the kind of education these kids are getting at Covenant, and reading things like Justin McBrayer’s report in The New York Times, confirms in me the urgent need to build places like this up.
By the way, if you are interested in coming out tonight to hear me talk about my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I’ll be at The Attic room at Covenant. Info:
Monday, March 2 | 7:00 PM
The Attic | The Covenant School
7300 Valley View Lane | Dallas, Texas 75240
The lecture is free and open to the public.
UPDATE: Reader Devinicus:
A rigid differentiation between “facts” in the land of reason and “values” in the land of opinion produces the likes of the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty who dogmatically held to his opinions while simultaneously refused to offer any rational grounds for them. He believed in his values because he believed in them. Period. And by the way, he was perfectly happy to have certain people killed if they threatened his values.
As a college professor, I am constantly running into students who certainly hold many things to be moral truths. Here I think McBrayer is quite wrong. However, they have no ability to defend their beliefs in such moral truths, infected as they are by ‘fact v. opinion’ thinking. They strongly — sometimes very strongly — believe in equality or liberty or God or Nature or the social construction of gender or whatever, but can give no account of those beliefs. So they wind up believing not “moral facts” but rather holding very, very strong opinions which are immune to reasoned argument because, after all, they are opinions.
The result is not good for our society at large, either/both:
 a hive mentality where “we” in the group all believe the same things simply because certain beliefs stand as markers of group identity; or/and
 a deeply cynical mass of people highly skilled at parroting beliefs which they do not hold simply in order to join the dominant group.