I want to make a comment on Justin McBrayer’s recent article, which was printed in the New York Times last week. “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” was posted on the Stone, the Times’s philosophy blog, which often prints articles that are so confused that they’re not worth rebutting. But this one was different for two reasons. First, it was tremendously popular, earning about five times the usual number of comments and getting shared a dozen times on my newsfeed. Second, it was not just wrong but revealingly wrong.
McBrayer starts by complaining that the Common Core does not properly teach children to distinguish between fact and opinion. A fact, the new curriculum says, is something that can be proved with evidence. An opinion is just a feeling. So it’s a fact that the Aztecs sacrificed tens of thousands of human beings. But if you say it was evil, you’re just speculating.
|Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.|
McBrayer is uncomfortable with that, extremely understandably. In his opinion, it teaches children that anything not scientifically provable is up for grabs. And as soon as we divide the world into is-es and oughts, the oughts are liable to wither in the hot sun of relativism. If our moral principles can’t be proved, there’s no basis on which we can defend them except that they please our fickle instincts.
But you can prove an ought, says McBrayer. There are moral facts. You can demonstrate that it’s wrong to cheat on a test, that it’s wrong to lie about your homework, and that it’s wrong to make fun of the way Alexander talks. Moral precepts are empirical by the ancient meaning of the word: they can be put to the test. And because they are reasonable, they will come out unscorched. As McBrayer puts is, “The hard work lies ... in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do.”
We usually say that this kind of moral empiricism is characteristic of the Enlightenment. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the light of reason burst through the dusky firmament, and the old religious superstitions of the past were burned away. Human beings could think for themselves, and could learn to distinguish right from wrong by careful argumentation. Thus, the battle between divine right and consent of the governed was waged in reams of paper, and every moral and political question from slavery to free speech was disputed in the pamphlets. Even Kant, who denied reason the power to show the existence of atoms or God, insisted on the power of pure reason to discover the universal precepts that ought to control our behavior.
But humanity’s search for moral facts is older. Most famously, within the Catholic tradition, it has long been held that since God rules the cosmos according to reasonable principles, we can, as reasoning beings, discover the natural rules of human conduct. If we are saved by grace the scales will fall from our eyes completely, but even pagans and Jews are deemed capable of seeing the way to good conduct. St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century founder of modern systematic theology, was therefore able to sort out the dictates of a natural law with beautiful syllogisms. Now, if we feel compelled to go earlier, we can find similar language in Maimonides and the other Arabs. We can even head all the way back to the sunny Athenian agora.
Moral empiricism has had a long afterlife, too. At the University of Chicago, President Hutchins was famous for standing up for the virtues of democracy in the face of fascism—and claiming moreover that democracy was empirically justified as a sure means to human virtue and happiness. (Pitch: everyone should read this book. It’s about this question, and it’s the best intellectual history I’ve ever read.) More recently, most of the modern rationalists have adopted utilitarianism as the empirically verifiable basis of the correct human ethics. We can’t prove the existence, they say, of any essential rights or duties: that’s a category error. We can prove the existence of desires, and that’s enough for us to derive an entire system of ethics. For if human beings take pleasure in the fruits of benevolence and are hurt by selfishness, then it’s reasonable for them to support—rhetorically and otherwise—a society in which malicious action is strongly discouraged. This consequentialism is scientific and provable; everything else is just a ghostly superstition.
This kind of argument—from Plato to Eliezer Yudkowsky—is fired by a deep worry, similar to the longing for religious certainty that consumed Europe in the sixteenth century. It is revealed here:
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? 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?
In a world in which empiricism is king, we’re afraid that any convictions that we have that aren’t based on facts will founder. So we look for those facts, and if we don’t find them, we say that we’ve been only temporarily thwarted in our search. Because science must come down on our side and not Abubakar Shakau’s. And even if we don’t have it all right, we want to be able to say that the demons in Treblinka had it wrong.
When I was in high school, I was consumed by this anxiety. I participated in a videotaped debate (thankfully lost to the sands of time) in which I argued with evangelical passion against the resolution that moral relativism is correct. On another occasion, I got locked in a titanic duel in class, which ended with my red-faced teacher declaring that “moral relativism is the foundation of the Ethical Culture School,” and with me sputtering that she was throwing away centuries of wisdom with a smirk. I wanted to know that it was wrong to steal, that I should sacrifice myself for other people, that I should live for my soul and not my belly. These facts were written into the cosmos.
But now I reject all of this. I reject moral facts. I do not do so by denying their existence, for that would mean falling into the same trap as the empiricists. (It’s not, in other words, as if moral facts could exist, but don’t.) I do so by throwing out altogether the question of whether there are or are not moral facts.
Because the fact is, the world is just a piece of rock, and the stars just bags of hydrogen. The time is long past when we were so confident in our values that the trees and rivers seemed to assent to them. David Hume was the first to say this, with his is-ought distinction. And Wittgenstein followed him, saying that ethics are things we do, not things that we can establish.
So I am unsure precisely what McBrayer means when he says that we must weigh all the empirical evidence to find the moral facts. Where would you tell a grade schooler, wondering why cheating is wrong, to look? The Bible? A history textbook? The woods? But what if she thinks that all of our empirical evidence is irrelevant? I once sat down with a young camper of mine who’d just hit his friend in a moment of wrath. I asked him why he’d done it, and then I told him that uncontrolled anger didn’t suit the person he wanted to be. “But it’s exactly who I want to be,” he replied. “I’ve tried being virtuous before [I’m quoting verbatim], and it didn’t make me any happier. So why should I bother?” I lapsed into frustrated silence.
Here’s the problem: wherever our morals come from, they don’t come from the phenomenal world. I can bring up all the evidence in the world, and whether I’m talking to my camper or Achilles, I won’t be able to change any minds. Whatever is empirical can always be deemed irrelevant.
And yet: we can still be moral people without either talking about “facts” or succumbing to relativism. For just as the facts don’t command us to be good people, they also don’t command us to leave off the whole business of morality altogether. Our convictions can still stand. All I mean to say is that they won’t be determined by phenomena over which we have no control.
I think it’s better that way. For what if we put our hatred of stealing to the test and—it fails! We have nothing to stand on then. Better, then, that we declare independence from the world when we take a moral stand. This is stated explicitly in the gospel of John: the events that occur in the world can tell us nothing whatsoever about whether we are in the right. Only God can tell us that, for earthly life is just a dream of shadow.
Morality, then, is like a set of eyeglasses. It is not predetermined by any phenomena in the world, but it does let us see those phenomena in a wholly new light. Tolstoy saw this clearly: His novels and stories are filled with characters who, inspired by goodwill, suddenly see the world with new eyes. Levin almost commits suicide upon deciding that the life is a stupid game, but sees it as something else entirely when he decides to sustain himself on loving other people. Ivan Ilyich, after a boring career and an unbearably painful illness, sees death disappear in the last moments of his life when he takes pity on his miserable family.
Neither of these characters discovers anything new about the world. But the world itself changes its color when there’s a sudden shift in their values. I think that these differences in sight, not any empirical judgment, are what separate us from Boko Haram; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the Nazis who killed him. I have had more empirical disputes with my best friends than with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who might very well be a man of great learning.
And when it comes to moral instruction, I think we can do much better than telling our children that there are ethical facts for them to discover. We can insist to them that they see the world properly. Thus, when David killed Uriah to take his wife Bathsheba, my namesake went to his court and told him this story:
“There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he [did not] take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.”
And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”
That’s how you impart a lesson. It was no ordinary man, but a prophet who went up to Jerusalem, to insist on a moral principle that was eternal. He did not show anything to the king. Instead, he reminded David of what he’d known all along: that a man lives for God and not for himself; that pity is an essential part of our lives. One need not be religious to see the point in this. Even if we are godless, we can still see the world through our values, and our imperturbable convictions can have their expression in our lives.
So when we teach children, let’s give them moral teachings, not moral facts. I suspect, though, that this is beyond the power of the Common Core.