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That’s Just Your Opinion

Rod Dreher [1] joins Justin McBrayer [2] in fretting that we are teaching students there are no “moral facts”:

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of [morally relativistic] 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.  [3]It’s important.

Well, I suppose it is important – but are we entirely sure that second-graders are prepared to handle Gettier counterexamples [4]?

More seriously, let’s look at a very real-world second grade type example, and see where facts and opinions enter into the discussion.

Eddie takes Billy’s cookie without permission. Billy protests to the teacher. What are the facts of the case?

These are all facts of the case. If they can be established, then we know what happened.

To know what consequence follows, you need to know some other facts – facts of law. In this case, these are:

Those are the facts of the law: matters of the rules and who has jurisdiction over a given question. The teacher duly establishes the facts, and sends Eddie to the principal’s office.

What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.

It’s also moral reasoning, and it should properly be engaged, so as to develop Eddie’s moral reasoning further. The teacher should say that he understands it feels unfair that Billy didn’t reciprocate in cookie exchange, but that this still doesn’t justify taking Eddie’s cookie without permission because – and here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights. Or: how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him? Wouldn’t you feel that was wrong? Regardless of what he said, he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.

But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.

The point is: a debate about whether or not it’s wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie is different in kind from a debate about whether or not Eddie actually took Billy’s cookie, and we need some kind of nomenclature for distinguishing the two questions. “Fact” versus “opinion” will do fine.

If there’s a problem here at all, it’s not with what constitutes a fact but with what constitutes an opinion – that is to say, a failure to distinguish between an opinion and a preference. For example: the statement “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion. It’s also a stupid opinion because “best flavor of ice cream” is not really a thing. What the speaker really means is “I like vanilla ice cream best” or possibly “most people like vanilla ice cream best.” Either of those statements are statements of fact, not opinion – facts about individual preferences.

Now, what about “George Washington was the greatest American President?” That’s clearly a question of opinion, not fact, right? Ok – but is it a stupid opinion like “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream?” The answer depends on whether a word like “greatest” has any social meaning. If it doesn’t – if we can’t reason together about what makes for greatness – then it’s a stupid opinion, because the only statements we can actually make are factual statements about personal preferences, our own or others’. But if it does – if we can reason together about what greatness means, its relationship to goodness, or to sheer historical importance – then it’s not a stupid opinion, because we can share it, debate it, and have our minds changed about it.

Which brings me to a final test proposition.

“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Fact? Or opinion?

Obviously, it’s a problem if you teach the above proposition as an example of fact. And if it isn’t a fact, then it’s an opinion. But if you were a pious Muslim parent, and learned that your child was taught that a central tenet of your religion was “just a matter of opinion,” you’d be unhappy, right? That statement is certainly more than a statement of fact about personal preference (“I like Islam best!”) – but it’s also not really something subject to public dispute, by which I don’t mean that such dispute is blasphemous or forbidden but that it’s a category error, at least within modernity, to argue with a proposition like the above in the way that you might argue about whether it was right or wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie, or whether George Washington was the greatest President.

The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation. It’s something more forceful and substantial than a preference, not really subject to public reason like an opinion, and not subject to verification like a fact. It belongs in its own category of statements.

My question is whether McBrayer thinks moral truths belong in that same category. If so, then I would say that he is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands. That view has a venerable history in Western and non-Western philosophy, but I dissent from it.

If he doesn’t think moral truths belong in that category, then I think he is just objecting to the specific words chosen by the Common Core, and not to the distinction itself. Because the distinction hanging over the bulletin board is entirely valid and even essential to moral reasoning. If it’s not being used that way, to promote the development of moral reasoning, but instead to wall us all off from each other with our indisputable personal preferences, the problem isn’t with the distinction itself, but with the fact (if it is the case) that we’re taking our view of opinion from Jeffrey Lebowski.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "That’s Just Your Opinion"

#1 Comment By Peter T On March 3, 2015 @ 10:52 am

Wouldn’t concepts like property (what “belongs” to someone), authority (who is in a position to “decide” something) and permissibility (what is “allowed”) all fall under the intersubjective category of “opinion” too, rather than the objective category of “fact”?

#2 Comment By The Wet One On March 3, 2015 @ 11:29 am

That right there is pretty solid thinking about that topic. At the very least, it clarified a few things.

No wonder Mr. Millman gets a column and I just get to kibbitz in the combox.

#3 Comment By Zach On March 3, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

Noah,

Why is it problematic to teach your final test proposition as an example of fact? I would argue that “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet” is precisely the same sort of statement as “Eddie took Billy’s cookie.” The only difference is the probabilities we should rationally assign them given our current state of knowledge.

Treating “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet” the same as “E=MC2” in public schools would be merely impolitic, but not a category error. The proper analog to “it was wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie” would be “Islam is the best guide to human flourishing.”

Indeed it seems to me that properly distinguishing between statements such as “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet” and “Islam is the best guide to human flourishing,” and subjecting them to the correct kind of scrutiny based on their category, is one of the key features of modernity, the scientific revolution, the enlightenment etc.

#4 Comment By Ken T On March 3, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

“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.”

Wow. Right there, in two sentences, is the foundation of the entire anti-science anti-intellectual platform of the Republican Party. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you have to support your position, if I just keep my head buried in the sand so that I can’t or won’t understand what you are saying, then I am justified in rejecting all your evidence, without offering any evidence of my own in rebuttal. Thus, climate change is not happening, supply-side economics works, and bombing a country’s civilians will cause them to embrace democracy and the U.S.

#5 Comment By Alex Wilgus On March 3, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

As a teacher of high schoolers in public schools (who have not been pushed very far beyond the second grade level) the trouble is that they really do think that opinions are pointless things to ponder which leads them to label statements like “family is important” as factual simply because it’s too indispensable to them to be thought of as mere opinion. You’re right that the fact/opinion binary ought to get fleshed out to the point of explaining moral reasoning as the years progress, but in public schools, it’s most often left at the second grade level.

#6 Comment By EngineerScotty On March 3, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

It’s always amusing to see those with pre-modern attitudes displaying postmodern arguments to attack modernity.

#7 Comment By Non-robotic Nebraskan On March 3, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

My first reaction when I saw Rod post this was alarm that one can now fish a doctorate out of a box of Cap’n Crunch. When presented with the following definitions:

“Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes”

associate professor McBrayer arrives at the following conclusion:

“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.”

Apparently the good professor was unable to recognize that the word “and” in the given definition of “fact” indicates that facts are a subset of truths. In order to be a fact, a claim must be true *and* can be tested or proven. That definition _intentionally_ does not preclude the existence of truths which are not facts.

There is also nothing in the given definition of opinion which states that an opinion must necessarily be untrue. Therefore there is plenty of space in the given definitions for true opinions, and since moral claims are presumed to be opinions, moral truths.

All of the above is simple logic and is beyond dispute. Associate professor McBrayer should be ashamed for pretending not to understand this.

If he is so very bothered by the fact that the definitions presented allow claims to be both fact and opinion, and that the tests do not, we can merely adopt the convention that all claims meeting both sets of criteria are called facts rather than opinions. In other words:

“Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: Something that someone thinks, feels, or believes, and that is not a fact”

Boom. All of his concerns addressed, and I’d bet my life savings that the answer keys on his kid’s tests are totally correct given these new and improved definitions. I also believe that incoming college students understand these distinctions, and that they are useful.

Of course, we know what this is really about. McBrayer and Dreher both want people to treat statements like “Drug dealers belong in jail” and “Copying homework assignments as wrong” and “The inherent purpose of marriage dictates that it must be between a man and a woman” as belonging to the same category as the mean value theorem and the atomic weight of sodium.

That most people no longer think this way is a great improvement in the world, and will serve society well. The fact that many philosophers and theologians spent thousands of years failing to try to put these types of claims all in the same category of “facts” is, in my view, strong evidence that they don’t belong in the same category, however true they might be.

#8 Comment By Chris Atwood On March 3, 2015 @ 3:20 pm

Generally an impressive piece of reasoning, but it stumbles near the end.

You write as why “Washington is the best president” may under given conditions be a legitimately opinion, but not just a preference, that “it’s not a stupid opinion, because we can share it, debate it, and have our minds changed about it.”

You then take the Muslim confession “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet” and say that it is never a usefully debatable opinion in the way that “GW was the greatest president” is. But by the criteria you offer, this is manifestly not true. Muslim apologists do indeed write books and articles arguing their point–and you know what? Those arguments are shared, they are debated (publicly, but more often privately), and most importantly, peoples minds are in fact changed about it. Christians or atheists or whatever become Muslims, and vice versa. You may not think this type of debate very interesting, and you may not be impressed with the reasoning that causes people to have their minds so changed on such questions, but it is impossible to avoid the fact that religious apologetics are like debating global warming or presidential rankings or Obamacare–it happens, it more or less obeys the formal qualities of rational debate, and peoples sometime have their minds changed. (And given political polarization these days, I’m not sure apologetics is much less likely to change minds than debating Obamacare or gun control.) Given those empirical facts, I don’t think establishing “creedal affirmation” as a fourth category (alongside fact, [legitimately debatable] opinion, and [mere] preference) is defensible. Rather, religious claims are legitimately debatable opinions which for various reasons have been ruled allowable only in certain fora (e.g. they’re not allowed to be debated in the public grade schools, but are allowable on cable TV).

Once again, it’s important to repeat that just because religious truths cannot be addressed in (say) presidential debates does not mean debates about them are necessarily less rational than presidential debates (an undemanding standard, I know). And I think this truth is particularly difficult for adherents of ethnic religions (Hinduism and Judaism) to understand, because the religions they are most familiar with bake ethnic identity (which is indeed not a legitimately debatable topic) into the creedal definition. But those religions that don’t bake ethnicity into the creed (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, most importantly) are as a result not disqualified from being rationally debated.

#9 Comment By Sean Nelson On March 3, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

I generally agree with Noah’s post here, but not with his distinction between preferences (“stupid opinions”) and legitimate opinions as being reliant upon whether public criteria exist that allow judgment and argument to become persuasive. The problem is that this seems to deny that aesthetic opinions, especially for a Kantian, could ever be anything BUT “stupid” since aesthetic judgments can’t be teleological in the first place. But such a position, apart from being antithetical to more traditional conservatism, would deny the possibility of a person saying and meaning, “I certainly think Moby Dick is a great novel, although I don’t really enjoy reading it,” or “The movie was trash but I loved every second of it!” Is a person who makes such distinctions really just an idiot?

#10 Comment By Stephen Gould On March 3, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights.

“Please sir, why is it wrong for there to be lots of fights?”

That question gets answered differently depending on whether the teacher is a modern Western softy, or an ancient Spartan.

What basis have you for deeming a modern Western teacher right, and the ancient Spartans wrong? I can come up with some good consequentialist arguments for why I generally prefer modern Western morality to Spartan, and I can certainly envision someone devising a quantitative assessment of the superiority of one moral code over another which may people would agree with, but you’re still merely pushing the subjectivity of “right” and “wrong” another level away, and not dispensing with subjectivity at all.

#11 Comment By Jeffrey G Johnson On March 4, 2015 @ 9:41 am

What a refreshing anti-dote this is to all the handwringing from moralizing worry worts.

What is important here is that you actually think about the question, and go into specific detail, rather juggling great abstractions about moral truths. Let’s have the moralizers tell us specifically what some of the unqualified absolute moral truths are. I think they would find that difficult, while moral reasoning, actually thinking requires specific facts before it can even take place.

Here is the clincher: “I would say that [McBrayer] is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands.”

This is I think exactly correct, and points directly to what is wrong with pearl clutching absolute morality crowd.

#12 Comment By James from Durham, England On March 4, 2015 @ 10:09 am

One of the purposes of debate is to reach a point of agreement where we can move forward together. In fact, unless there is some common ground, debate is pointless because there are no agreed upon criteria for determining truth.

#13 Comment By mdc On March 6, 2015 @ 9:37 am

Fact/Opinion is a bad distinction.

Fact should be contrasted either with Fiction (in one sense), or Law (in another.)

Opinion should be contrasted with Knowledge.

For those who want to use ‘Fact’ as a synonym for ‘Truth’, the latter should be contrasted with Falsity (or perhaps Illusion).

I think what the journalistic distinction between fact (or news) and opinion is really trying to get at is a distinction between description and prescription. The latter, I guess, always involves a preference; but as you say, these can often be justified with reasons.

#14 Comment By Anderson On March 6, 2015 @ 11:06 am

Claiming to rely on “moral facts” is just insisting that your opinions happen to be objectively correct. It assumes the conclusion.

The best retort to the Drehers of the world would be for them to imagine (with the imaginative sympathy they so evidently lack) that their kids are being taught somebody else’s “moral facts” at school.

#15 Comment By cdugga On March 6, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

Food for thought. More for later. Something, something in the vein of freedom from religion as part of freedom of religion? Maybe the other way around. But the necessity of primarily teaching obedience versus moral reasoning to children seems obvious. Obedience to rules first. The moral reasoning for the rules can be developed along with the developing minds. Also there are rules that must be obeyed distinct from any moralizing. Don’t play in the street. If we need to instruct the young not to play in the street, then logic indicates they probably will require simple obedience before launching into moral reasoning. Moral reasoning in children may not be impossible or impossible to teach, but it cannot stand on its own in developing moral adults. Is that a fact? The theorem of empericality? Yeah well, you can call it that if you want, but moral adults attend to the facts with a clear conscience.
IMHO seems like debating this would be a kind of mental masturbation. Abstraction, or is it abstracting? Maybe just a pleasant conversation between Mark and Sigmund. All you square brains out there, better beware. Don’t do that, or to do that more? That is the question? Or is it, don’t do it that way, it is to be done this way. That way being the way they (the demons?) want you to do it; and this way is the righteous way because we as free individuals have decided what is correct. Freedom always trumps outside authority. Especially if it turns out that the outside authority might scale our kids as DA’s. Relatively speaking. It is better just to look at them as the DH’s we already know they are. As in pop culture is politically correct. PCPC with a rap anthem of bling wrapped around porn and everybody assume the position of victim. Posturing. All fake and pretentious people, post urine for ratings. Well, like, I smell THAT op-ed practically every day. Most iffers do better in common core than most kauks, thereby proving that the testing itself is flawed. Ahem, ah, on moral grounds. Shortcuts in long division are amoral. A straight line defines the shortest distance between two points. Yeah well, who wants to go from here to there anyway when we can just continue and choose doing nothing and neither go here nor there? As in, who are you to judge me, democrats do it too. The pay is the same, and the same votes count or don’t. The theorem of equivocation? If we can’t finish the test doing it our way then how about we just don’t take the test to begin with. That is our right. We must have the addendum to the bill or they will pay hell. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; democracy simply doesn’t work. Ah yes, moral direction, but first scramble their brains so that we can instruct them what moral direction is. Even easier, just show them pictures of the other guys in drag with aborted fetuses on the end of their pitchforks laughing at the little old lady trying to work her playphone. Operator, can you dial the number I am looking for, for me. Let the campaign begin. Koch will put cheap gas in your pick-up and Alec will make sure you don’t pay a penny more for the roads and bridges. Excepting the private toll ones of course. Buy bonds, build now and let your kids pay you back with interest. Who really enables entitlement anyway? Is that some sort of moral question?
Watchya goin to do? Who you gonna call? Well, primarily there is no choice but obedience to those claiming moral authority with corporate backing; generally speaking, because nobody has time for the guy stating specifics. And the readers, much less the listeners, eyes glaze over a minute after you started. You have 20 more seconds. What? 15 seconds. Yes, well, Israel is the one taking land and the US is the one dropping… Sorry, time is up. How about your evening news? He said she said? Same as yesterday, right? Afraid that is all we can manage now, if even that, since so many facts presented seem clear only to those saying clearly over and over again. Yeah well, clearly those that have the bomb now are righteous in their endeavors so that we don’t want anybody else having the bomb that might deter those righteous endeavors. Hello, justice righteous? Yeah, I’m looking over your portfolio and thought I’d give you a call on how your upcoming ruling in democracy vs vested interest in the status quo, might affect it. Hello, senator? I was looking over our investment strategy relative to the passage of the democracy bill. It is important we schedule a meeting before the bill comes up for a vote. Right? The right again. Moral leaders all. Yepper.
Used to think people are not robots, but am less sure now than before. Proofing errors found, click to correct. Yeah well, that is just your opinion and you are just a fancy prancy algorihthm, and everything I write will become righteous the more it shows up and becomes part of the mainstream. Would you like to submit for inclusure in the future? Wait, I have to submit first for inclusure to be included? Right is might, and a double edged irony. Get it? Of course not; who am I talking to about what anyway? Darn facts keep piling up and who has time to moralize on each one. I did not know, cannot remember and don’t understand the question. Stop making sense, and start making more cents/unit. Clear and present danger to who, where? Oh, but that is a long time from now, or, the science is controversial. Let somebody else’ kids deal with that. We just need to make sure that the inheritance tax is repealed with a rider that Christian soup kitchens receive tax credits while also remaining tax exempt. Yeah well, the demographics indicate that getting re-elected will be harder, not because of who votes, but because of shareholder death and who won’t be voting anymore. Ha, Ha, stupid American always think of now, always scared of future so not think about it. Death of a salesman? He dead already. Even if we could bring him back to life, would he be able to make a living selling toxic Chinese ingredients in dog food and formaldehyde soaked lumber from Russian timber not yet infested with warm weather beatles? Embelish to distract and omit to clarify? Rub her soul and just revolve her to enhance moral clarity. Melting ice increasing freshwater on the east coast does what again? It is all part of god’s plan, god willing ya know. Just jack the church up on some stilts where the parishioners can just step out the door to work on the aircraft carrier.
But if we did not understand way back then, is it too late to realize that moral judgement rests on presupposition, and we better make sure those presuppositions are derived from the available facts rather than fear and advertisements by those paid for maintaining the status quo’s power and wealth. Hope there are moral adults in the future. We need an app for that now though. Ramble on, do, do do, my baby.

#16 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 10, 2015 @ 1:54 am

Noah wrote:

The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation.

More formally: it is an Axiom. It is an unprovable, assumed Truth which the larger philosophy proceeds from. Its consequences can be explored both ways (“is correct” as well as “is incorrect”), but analysis cannot ever prove (or disprove) the Axiom itself.

Same with “Reality (at least sometimes) obeys consistent Laws”, “logical constructs can sometimes accurately explain Reality”, “our observations reveal (at least part of) Reality”, and “(at least some of) the (assumed) Laws of Reality can therefore be logically derived from our observations”.

We can’t ever prove these assertions (nor disprove them), but we can point out that our observations and our theories are often congruent with one another, and are therefore at least consistently Logically Coherent.

Maybe it’s all a Matrix illusion, but barring deep-level deceit like that, our physical theories and observations give much consistency to support one another.