Moral Opinions and Facts – A Religious Philosopher’s Presuppositions

This opinion piece (irony) by By Justin P. McBrayer, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts, is full of McBrayer’s disappointment that the education system in the US isn’t instructing students in the existence of moral facts, mistaking them for moral opinions, in McBrayer’s opinion. McBrayer is wrong, they are opinions, in my opinion.

Justin McBrayer

McBrayer doesn’t give any evidence or proof of the moral facts he thinks there might be. He doesn’t even go so far to assert many moral facts directly, but merely laments that some particular moral facts that he believes in are taken to be opinions:

There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged?

Wow! I must come back to the hanging presuppositions in that question. How could a philosopher make such a comment? Here’s how: McBrayer is religious.

There’s a clue in bio summary at the bottom of the page

an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He works in ethics and philosophy of religion.

And a quick search online:

Under his ‘Teaching’ is a section devoted to C. S. Lewis, the biggest dumb ass theist going with an unbelievable number of people that fall for his guff. I say dumb ass, in that sense I reserve for intellectuals that are really clever and capable in some respects but just fall head over heels for their own religious apologetics.

This is from his ‘Leadership’ page:

Good leadership requires courage, clear-thinking, and fairness. This is especially true in the academy where there are multiple stakeholders, each with their own priorities, and yet a commitment to shared governance. And it turns out that Plato was right: training in philosophy is training for good leadership! I strive to bring the skills I have honed as a philosopher to bear on the problems facing the communities that I lead.

That’s going to be difficult if one’s opinions are preloaded with religious presuppositions. Philosophy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of people that are inclined to believe their presuppositions to be rock solid premises from which they build fabulous valid but totally unsound arguments for things like, oh, I don’t know, Believing in God is Good for You.

So, you might think the remainder of this is a hatchet job on a theist by and atheist. It’s not meant to be. When I started reading it was the bad philosophy that popped out of the page, and it wasn’t until some way through that I thought, what’s the chance’s McBrayer is religious. Then I got to the mini-bio at the end and thought I’d take a look online.

Despite my concern for his religious foundations for his bad presuppositions the rest is really about the philosophy – since anyone can have bad presuppositions and believe them to be true.

Morals Are Opinions We really Care About

This is my view on morality as opinion, which explains in more detail why I object to McBrayer’s view: Moral Facts and Opinions

McBrayer’s Piece

As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

I think those students are right, in principle, though this idea simplifies and avoids the extent to which some moral opinions are so entrenched in human minds that they are treated as facts. And as such they become facts: facts about what humans feel to be true, rather than facts about what is true in some external cosmic sense.

… 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.

Well, that’s one angle. The other angle is that too many philosophers, like McBrayer, are just as mistaken in thinking there are objective moral facts/truths other than strong opinions.

McBrayer then picks up on this:

  • Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
  • Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

He then goes on to explain the problem for morality, in that there’s this binary condition: one or the other. Something is a fact or it is an opinion. Facts are true for everyone, and opinions may vary for each person according to their view on the matter in hand. I do agree with one aspect of McBrayer’s view: some things can be facts and opinions, in that one can hold opinions about facts. But one can also have opinions that aren’t backed up by fact or aren’t really fact based at all. If we’re not careful we’ll get into the murky world of ‘truth aptness’ – a philosophical term that says little more than a statement can be expressing truth or falsehood. It doesn’t quite fit the empirical world but is better left to the world of pure reason.

McBrayer reviews some sources, including Wiki, and finds fault with the fact/truth distinction first. I don’t see McBrayer resolving the problem, so maybe this will help:

  • A fact is something accepted to be true, or near enough to being true, based on the weight of evidence, argument or both. A fact may be contingent and may change over time. The details of the fact may change, or it may simply be considered no longer true and so not an established fact. There may be arenas where a fact is held to be true and others where it is not. This might all seem rather messy – because it is. Get over it and stop expecting too much from facts.

  • True is a binary state, one of true/false, just as easily substituted by other symbols: yes/no, 0/1. Note that the actual state is arbitrary and all that is require is consistency in some system using the binary system (binary logic) – in the preceding I sort of equated true/false with 0/1, rather than the more common 1/0. In electronic systems +/- voltages might represent 0/1 respectively, or 1/0, and the interface circuits will take care of the conversion. Consistency in a larger logical framework is all that is required. It’s not much use, for example, showing that it is true that X, come Wednesday, having everyone expect X come Wednesday, and then when Wednesday comes you say, sorry, I meant Not X.

  • In relation to facts, as shown in the first example, with ‘accepted to be true, or near enough to being true‘, the true/false binary nature of ‘truth’ is often an oversimplification. Some situations are better described by other number systems – such as a percentage, for example. So, that X is true may really be a statement or claim that with all the data we have we think (with epistemological uncertainty) that the probability of X actually being wholly true is 78%. Or, perhaps, 68% of scientists think X is really true – though each of those would be wise to not commit to being 100% sure it is true. And so it goes. Truth, applied to our perceived reality, is rather a misplaced measure, and we often set too much by our poor estimates of it. Lighten up. Embrace uncertainty and contingency.

Then McBrayer moves on to a point I think he gets right:

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions.

This is where I agree with him, but not on his deeper view. He gives an example where the following are all supposed to be opinions, in the opinion of some course paper, or the opinion of the author of the paper:

Copying homework assignments is wrong.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

All men are created equal.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

Drug dealers belong in prison.

The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

Well, of course they are all opinions. They are moral opinions, mostly; opinions on a moral value – a binary moral value of right or wrong, inappropriate behaviour or not, drinking below 21 or not, and so on. Here’s the list again, with an explanation as to why they are opinions, and under what circumstances they are facts.

Copying homework assignments is wrong. – It is a fact based on accumulated opinion about the morality of copying. But it’s fairly simple to see that one could develop a culture where copying homework is good efficient use of your time. Most of us viewing this are of one culture that sees it as an established moral opinion already, and therefore there is this fact about that opinion – the fact about the morality of the matter is that we in our culture hold this moral opinion.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior. – I see no moral reason for holding this to be a fact at all. It is not a moral fact but the moral opinion of those people that hold it to be a moral fact. They are mistaken. The fact of the matter is they hold an opinion that they have elevated in their minds to be a moral fact, but there is no fact about this opinion outside that scope. I can show you the physics of the fact that the school has this rule, by showing you the school rules, and the minutes of the meeting in which it was laid down – these are records of the facts about material events that occurred. But there is no moral fact about inappropriate behaviour. It’s collective opinion that is mistaken for fact. It’s no good telling me that, well, this isn’t a physical fact it’s a moral fact, when you haven’t actually give me anything that is a moral fact beyond the fact of holding the opinion.

All men are created equal. – Opinion. When enacted into a Bill of Rights enforced by law a number of facts come about because of that enactment. It’s the enactment that’s a fact, in as much as it can be backed up. It is also a fact that this is an opinion held by many people. But it is not a fact. Without gross equivocation of the term ‘equal’ you would have trouble actually showing any two people are born equal, even twins, because we are all unique. Being born in a state that gives you the equal right to climb stairs isn’t equal if you are stuck in a wheelchair. Being born equal in any sensible literal use of the term makes it claim about physical facts of birth. Clearly that wasn’t intended. The intent is a political one. A political moral intent. A political intent to enact a moral opinion. But it’s still a moral opinion.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism. – Opinion based on some measure of utility. Good luck with getting everyone to agree on the details. It’s an opinion. While the ‘All men are created equal’ idea is an opinion that can be assigned into law in order to create some associated fact, this one is not likely to get everyone agreeing because left and right have different opinions on it. An anarchist might think no liberties are worth giving up ever. Yet more opinion. [Incidentally here, Utilitarianism is really a measure of utility used in support of moral opinion, or as a means to derive a moral opinion. The facts of a utilitarian argument are facts about the world and its utility to humans, not about some abstract moral opinion directly, and not some imaginary moral fact.]

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol. – Opinion, written into law. And quite arbitrary. Like speed limits.

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat. – A fact claim. But the epistemological measure of its truth is opinion based, backed up with some science perhaps. This isn’t even a moral value judgement. Of course people make a moral case for vegetarianism, but that ends up being opinion abut the importance to us of the welfare of animals. What if a vegetarian crash lands in a remote place with only meat on the plane. Do they eat or starve? They end up weighing their survival against a principle about an already dead animal. How would they go on if human dead meat was all there was – Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Drug dealers belong in prison. – Opinion. Contested opinion at that. It can only be a fact when enacted in law. Then, when one comes across a drug dealer one can say, as a measure of the extent to which the law applies, that this drug dealer belongs in prison. Elevated to a moral statement this is entirely opinion.

So, all opinions. There are facts that lead to some people holding those opinions, and some fact that are consequent on people holding those opinions. But only the penultimate one is an actual fact claim without direct moral concern in the the actual statement – though moral statements could be added to it.

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.

Well, that’s just about right, in one sense.

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises. Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

So, what we have in the list above is all opinion, and only one that appears to be a non-moral factual claim about the world rather than claims about what people think are moral truths.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact.

But such student rights and responsibilities are opinions, about how people should behave. They are used to create factual limitations: behave outside this prescribed range and you get expelled. The opinions have factual consequences when established as rules. And it is a fact that some brains hold these moral opinions, but they are still moral opinions and not facts.

Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.

This is baloney. If this fact/opinion issue is causing a problem at all it’s that the nature of the opinions and why we hold them isn’t explained well enough. I can see how post modern relativists are screwing up on education, but moral absolutists like McBrayer are only papering over the cracks of morality with their religiously backed opinions being asserted to be facts.

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts.

No! No! It’s this sort of absolutist nonsense that gets students with any brains thinking this religious stuff is a load of crap. They figure out that if you pretend these moral codes exist in the hands of some god, but, hey, he never actually strikes me down, then fuck it, I’ll cheat. A far more nuanced approach to morality as hard won opinions developed over millennia gives far more respect to their origins than some jumped up god shouting often contradictory and very often clearly pointless moral prescriptions and proscriptions. So what if I don’t go to church each Sunday? So what if my dad and I use profane language when watching football?

And here comes a chunk of clues about McBary’s thoughts on the matter of morality:

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

Are you serious?

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? – First, why the need to be outraged? I can easily make a moral argument as to why my moral opinion that it is wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees should be assented to. I don’t need to be outraged to make that moral argument.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if I don’t let my outrage dictate my morality.

It was, was it not, the religious moral outrage of the Islamists that caused the murder? Seriously. Think.

If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? – We can do that based on arguments to support our moral opinions, based on the facts about human suffering. We don’t need fake moral truths, that are out there or god given. We can explain from a basis of human empathy about the suffering of others why people should not be inhumane. And we can add arguments about deterrence, or preventing the perpetrators from indulging in more crimes – isn’t that enough?

I suspect it’s not enough for the religious, who like to invoke their moral outrage in order to blame and punish. It seems to come with the territory. A bit of moral outrage and smiting and stuff, just like God – the God invented by humans, so that humans can justify their outrage rather than taking the more humanistic approach of struggling to control our outrage.

If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others? – Humans are not created equal. That is merely a statement of intent about how to treat people – as if they were created equal. Again, we can give arguments involving empathy and the benefit of giving each other mutually equal say in matters such that the conclusion is that a democratic political system is best, and that then allows us to vote based on our opinions, which may be selfish, or may be for the greater good – voting for a party that taxes more to help the poorer members, or for a party that is known to promote aid abroad, or one that is going to make a more humane justice system.

Many religious systems are inherently anti-democratic to varying degrees. Islam has a pseudo-democracy that favours Muslims. Even Britain, where there is one person one vote, the clergy get positions of power by virtue of being clergy, without any democratic vote on the matter. There is nothing particularly altruistic about systems based on religiously inspired ‘moral facts’. I don’t consider death for apostasy to be a morally good act, but I do consider apostasy to be a morally neutral act.

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.

And McBrayer is replacing the moral relativist double think with the religious absolutist think. Both are bollocks.

We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation.

I agree. But not with Brayer’s solution. here are some points he makes:

Facts are things that are true. – No. facts are things that are deemed to be true, in some context of time, evidence and argument. We don’t have access to the absolute truth. The short cut that we are used to making in this context is that when even scientists say facts are true, and point to evolution, that still has this limitation, this contingency. But some facts are so much more evidenced that others (Evolution v ID) that as a good approximation we take Evolution to be a fact that is true. But never lose sight of the subtly.

Opinions are things we believe. – OK

Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. – Well, some of our beliefs align with our measure of the facts. Some of our beliefs do not. There are zero facts about God, but plenty of people believe is some sort of God. The corollary of this and the previous example is that some of our opinions do not align with the facts as they are established. When you add to that other factors of bias and other interests it’s easy to see why the debate over climate change hangs on so much biased opinion and less on fact.

Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. – OK

Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. – Well, that amounts now to opinions being value claims, and close to true or false, depending on evidence. That means that some opinions have no truth value, are either false, indeterminate or meaningless. So, “Cursing in school is inappropriate behaviour”, is entirely opinion, has not evidence to back it up, and has no determinate value, until you put it in a context whereby one defines it to be a moral truth – but then that definition is a matter of opinion of whether it is a good or bad definition, whether it should be held to or not. All opinion.

The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.

I agree. But that isn’t about separating moral fact from opinion, which was the main thrust of Brayer’s piece. He fails on that main point in that he gives us no reason or evidence to accept that moral values are anything but opinions.

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