Thursday, July 09, 2020

Why our children (and my students) don't think there are moral facts



Hal said...

Not sure I would trust the analysis of the author of that opinion piece. In it he reports a conversation with his son:

Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”
Him: “It’s a fact.”
Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”
Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”
Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”

The author is either confused or lying if he claims that he believes George Washington was the first president. He doesn't believe that Washington was the first president, he knows that Washington was the first president.

In other words, he doesn't appear to understand the difference between believing something to be the case and knowing something to be the case.

If I know a fact, that is if I know something to be the case, then I don't say I believe it to be so, I say I know it to be so.

StardustyPsyche said...

"What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?"
I would say that is made up hysterical Fox news bullshit.

Otherwise known as a lie.

David Brightly said...

I sympathise with the writer of this 2015 NYT article. I'm not sure I follow what he says about truth and proof but the gist of the piece seems right. Neat summary:
But at the same time, the curriculum sets our children up for doublethink. They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.
The designers of the Common Core seem to want children to learn the distinction between the objectivity of fact and the subjectivity of mere opinion, that is judgement or belief arrived at without due justification. This is very closely related to the standard philosophical distinction between belief, which may be true or false, and knowledge, seen as true, justified, belief. So knowledge is a kind of refined belief. Sadly the designers have chosen to present opinion and fact as exclusive, so children learn that opinions are unjustified beliefs. If they are then told that moral claims are to be classified as opinions they will see them as unjustified beliefs and ripe for dismissal. Not a happy outcome when one of the purposes of education is to imbue children with a common moral compass to hold society together.

Hal said...

No wonder you aren't sure you follow what he says about truth and proof. He appears quite confused to me. He also does not give an accurate account of how the word "fact" is being used in Common Core.

Here is the Common Core definition:
Information that can be proven to be true or false (Fact) and a personal statement of what one believes about a subject (Opinion).

Under that definition one can have true facts or false facts. That is quite different than the common usage of the word "fact"!!!

You can go here for how Common Core is using the word "fact": Discussion on facts

And also here: Can facts be false?

David Brightly said...

I have always taken 'facts' to be synonymous with 'truths' as in it's a fact that Trump is president. The entry (by Jonathan Lowe) in my Oxford Companion to Philosophy for 'fact' says,
A fact is, traditionally, the worldly correlate of a true proposition, a state of affairs whose obtaining makes the proposition true.
However my Collins dictionary gives usage 5 of 9,
(philosophy) a proposition that may be either true or false, as contrasted with an evaluative statement,
so there is room for confusion. It looks as if CC is using 'fact' as an abbreviation for 'factual statement', and 'opinion' for 'non-factual statement', the difference being objective verifiability (in principle, at least), corresponding to the objective/subjective distinction. I still support McBrayer's objection to classifying moral statements as subjective. 'Homework plagiarism is wrong' is verifiably true---you get punished (I hope!) for it---and an explanation for why it's wrong can be given.

Hal said...

Nice summary of the use of "facts". Agree that Common Core is using "fact" for "a statement of fact".

Regarding the issue of morals. Wouldn't "According to our code of ethics plagiarism is a grave offense and will be punished by a 30-suspension." be a statement of fact? If yes, then it seems to me that the distinctions the Common Core makes between facts and opinions pose no serious threat to the morals of American students.

People do have different beliefs regarding what is ethical or moral so I don't see this to be the horrible problem that the author of the opinion piece makes it out to be.

And the guy can't even spell "ad nauseam" correctly.:-) He spells it "ad nauseum".

I wouldn't want him teaching my kids philosophy.

David Brightly said...

Am I right in thinking this stuff is taught to US kids before they are 11 years old? We've seen already that there are some subtleties here that such young kids can't, I suspect, handle. So there is simplification and loss of distinction. The status of moral statements is not exactly a settled issue in contemporary philosophy. That, in my opinion(!), should make us wary of teaching impressionable children, in effect, subjectivism. But it will sit well, I suppose, with the postmodernism they will be subjected to later.

Hal said...

To be honest I have no idea what is currently being taught to children under 11 years of age.
But as you note, am sure they have to simplify these philosophical issues. I assume that is why CC uses the term "facts" instead of "statement of facts".

It is not clear to me why you think these children are being taught subjectivism. I'd be interested in hearing why you think so.

David Brightly said...

Hal, if kids are taught that moral claims are opinions (McBrayer) and opinions are personalstatements of belief (Hal quoting CC) it rather looks as if moral claims have no greater force than statements of personal taste. This looks like ethical subjectivism to me. From Ox Comp Phil:
There is a range of views about moral judgements. At the subjectivist pole, they are taken to be discrete feeling-responses of individuals to situations actual or imagined. To move towards the objectivist pole is to argue that moral judgements can be rationally defensible, true or false, that there are rational procedural tests for identifying morally impermissible actions, or that moral values exist independently of the feeling-states of individuals at particular times.

Hal said...

if kids are taught that moral claims are opinions (McBrayer) and opinions are personalstatements of belief (Hal quoting CC) it rather looks as if moral claims have no greater force than statements of personal taste.

Thanks for the answer.

I can see that if a teacher should present these statements of opinions as being merely statements of taste then it could very well lead to the sort of subjectivism you fear. Hopefully, such a narrow view of opinions is not being taught. After all, a belief is also an opinion and one can present rational reasons in support of a belief that plagiarism is wrong.

In the adult world we do find my different beliefs regarding what is moral or immoral. Does that entail that there are no moral facts? I don't think so. Maybe that is why I am not as concerned about the CC's teachings as you are.

As usual, I love to provide links to writings related to the topics being discussed here. I think you might find this naturalist presentation of goodness to be interesting: The Roots of Value

Hal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hal said...


Managed to fix the original link. Here it is:The Roots of Value

Sorry about that!

David Brightly said...

Thanks for the link, Hal. Good piece by Peter Hacker. I liked his setting of morality in history. Also this para:

It is noteworthy that respect for persons, for human beings with intellect and will, and knowledge of good and evil, is a far deeper and more fundamental notion than the recognition of human rights. To suggest that what was evil about the Armenian genocide, the Jewish holocaust, the Soviet gulags, the Cambodian terrors of Pol Pot, was that human rights or natural rights were being violated is, as Simone Weil wrote in a different context, ‘ludicrously inadequate’. Nor can one decently say that the millions of victims were treated unjustly. Rather, they were not treated as human beings should be treated. They were tortured, subjected to unimaginable physical and mental suffering. They were humiliated and degraded, subjected to unlimited terror. What was being violated was not human rights, but the very humanity of people – their moral agency and autonomy.

Hal said...


Glad you had a chance to read it. Agree with you completely in regards to that paragraph. It nicely encapsulates the piece.