A recent opinion column in the NYT by Justin McBrayer, a philosophy professor in Durango, CO, was headlined “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.” As far as I could tell, he believes that in trying to teach children how to differentiate between fact, opinion, and truth, the picture becomes so muddled that they are led to take all moral questions as matters of opinion in which any opinion is as good as any other opinion. The result, he says, is that his entering philosophy students have no sense of morality as something that can be factually true. It is the root cause of rampant cheating in college and all sorts of other moral sins, he maintains.
I first took issue with the headline. Our children is pretty broad. Maybe his second grade child is having a problem with the way he is being taught in Durango, but my four adult children, whose primary education took place in different schools, all seemed to grasp the skills needed to work out reliable answers to questions of morality and truth. They didn’t do it by the second grade, but they each received a good grounding for a start by then. We became the Godparents of several young girls brought up in the foster care system. Their early lives were a horror story of abuse. They too are now adults who have mastered the ability to think critically about moral issues. Something is working somewhere for at least some children, even under the worst of conditions.
If I understood Mr. McBrayer correctly, he believes that children are being taught that facts are one set of things, opinions are another set of things, and truth is something that can be assigned only to facts, not to opinions. Maybe I misunderstood. Most of us agree that there are such things as facts: things that are verifiable, and reliable in their appearance and use. Most of us, I suspect, also recognize that facts are facts only insofar as the information available to us supports their factuality. If new information becomes available, our understanding of a given fact may have to change. Opinions are not facts, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be judged one against another based on verification, including the use of facts and various ethical codes. Problems seem to arise when we confuse the two. Right now I am looking out the window at mountains encircled by clouds with a steady falling rain. That’s a fact. It would be idiotic for someone to assert that it was just my opinion that it is raining. Nevertheless, we see that king of confusion all the time. For instance, it’s a common ploy among the climate change deniers.
Truth is another question altogether. Truth, I think is always provisional. As a Christian priest and pastor there are a few things that I assert to be true without fear of contradiction I hold it to be absolutely true that Jesus is, in the problematic words of our limited vocabulary, the Son of God, and that the Christ Event of his birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection is the hinge upon which all things turn whether past, present or future. All else is provisional. Having said that, I’m not unaware that I am contradicted by those who follow other religions, no religion, and often other Christians, who are more than willing to assert an unassailable truth of their own.
But again, that doesn’t mean that we have to let truth wallow in a swamp of no exit. We can investigate a claim to truth to find out what it is based on, and whether it can stand up to a vigorous examination. You get the idea, so no more of that for now.
What I want to end with is the observation that we can’t expect second graders to get all of this. They have to start somewhere, and every starting point is always that, a first step. Moreover, even second graders can grasp certain moral or ethical standards that are generically true for us: don’t cheat, be nice to each other, don’t take what isn’t yours, share when you can, and so forth. In fact, why wait until second grade? Robert Fulghum said that “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.”