Thursday, June 25, 2015

Where We Place Blame Depends on What Is True

When we do something that others say is wrong, do we blame ourselves and repent? That depends on whether we agree it was wrong. In other words, the issue becomes one of what is a fact or true. Was what we did really wrong, or just some busybody's opinion?
Honoring truth is a value. People are taught values, and how and what they are taught is especially impactful on children. Both children and adults are prone to fuzzy thinking in general, but this becomes especially problematic when it comes to thinking about the pursuit of honorable behavior. In a New York Times piece by Justin McBrayer, a college philosophy professor, explains how fuzzy thinking about morals is leading children to think there are no moral facts, just moral opinions which they are free to accept or reject without blame. He is noticing that this moral ambiguity seems to be increasing among college students. He also observed that the issue was captured in a sign in his kid's secondary school, which posted the edict that defined fact and opinion as follows:

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

When McBrayer Googled definitions on the web, he found them all to be similar to the sign in the school. The implications of such definitions are quite damaging for honorable behavior. It breeds a situational ethics mentality that says that opinions are not based on fact or truth, and thus opinions are fungible. Such definitions mean that there are no moral truths, because none of them can be proved to be true. Moral claims are believed to be mere opinions. For example, murder is therefore not immoral, just illegal, because a majority of people had an opinion it was wrong and passed a law outlawing it. No one person's opinions are any more valid than anybody else's. These definitions lead to a moral ambiguity that is systematically encouraged by Common Core standards which include the deceptively innocuous requirement that children learn to "distinguish fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text." Links to the flawed definitions occur in lesson plans and quizzes.
The reality is that we think opinions are wrong if we do not hold them. Often, our attachment to our own opinions is welded by self-interest and emotions rather than by reason and evidence. What reason and evidence we employ is used as argument for existing opinion rather than for evaluation of alternative opinions. But if one uses reason and evidence to examine a range of opinions, the opinion we finally accept as true is more likely to be true. We construct an excuse for ourselves from thinking hard to seek absolute truth if we accept the claim that no moral truths are absolutely truer than others. How convenient. Now we don't have to take blame for what otherwise would be moral failures. This could have been the rationale for the statements of Jesus, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," and the paraphrase of several statements that are equivalent to "Seek ye the truth and you shall find it." 

The pedagogical challenge is for schools to place more emphasis on evidence-based thinking. Too many teachers impose their own opinions as authoritative and true without compelling supporting evidence. This conveys the message that it is o.k. for students to do likewise with their own opinions. Science courses have special value because they require students to consider and value evidence for conclusions about the nature of the physical world. That is the mindset students should use for conclusions outside the realm of science.
The problem is not just limited to uneducated kids. McBrayer sees moral relativism all the time with colleagues in academia. Just what is the problem with these definitions and mind set? For one, truth does not have to have proof in order to be true. Some things can be true, even though proof is not yet available. For example, the theory of evolution has overwhelming supporting evidence, but many people have the opinion it is not true because it cannot be definitively proved. McBrayer points out that some things that have been "proved" turn out later to be wrong. Proof is a feature of our mental life, and if proof is required for facts, then facts become person relative. You can have your truth, I can have mine. How then do we refute the counter-argument that says "You are entitled to your opinion, but not to your own facts."
The second flaw in the definitions is that students are being taught that claims are either facts or opinions: they can't be both. Common Core quizzes for example require students to sort claims into one or the other category. There are demonstrable facts that certain people steadfastly refuse to believe, as well as beliefs about certain "truths" that are manifestly not based on evidence or fact. The main point, however, is the reality that a fact can be true and believed at the same time.
Unfortunately in school curricula, students are taught that value claims are opinions, neither true nor based on fact. In an online fact vs. opinion student worksheet, McBrayer found that children were expected to classify the following behaviors as mere opinions:

  • Copying homework assignments is wrong.
  • Cursing in school is inappropriate.
  • All men are created equal.
  • It is wrong for people under age 21 to drink alcohol.
  • Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
  • Drug dealers belong in prison.

Our culture may be producing a whole generation that thinks there are no moral facts and thus no world view about honor can be true. Thus, no one can be blamed for violating moral values. We are left with the unavoidable problem, however, that adult life presents us with moral dilemmas wherein we must acknowledge certain moral values as facts. How, for example, can we be outraged when rioters destroy the property of innocents if this is not viewed as a moral fault, as dishonorable behavior? Or with McBrayer's example, how can we be outraged at the murder of cartoonists, if such murder is morally neutral? Indeed, we can rationalize it as o.k., because the cartoonist was extremely offensive. To protect people from crimes against humanity, we must acknowledge the reality that certain moral truths are indeed facts. As a society, we are challenged to think through the evidence that supports each of many competing moral claims to determine which claims are true. We abdicate that responsibility by believing that nothing is true that has not been proved. Unfortunately, it is easier to abdicate moral commitments than to live an honorable life.
Even when we acknowledge that certain things are right and others wrong, we seem to be living in a devolving culture where blame is something you place on others or on uncontrollable outside forces. How long will it be until blame is no longer politically correct, where we can't hold anybody responsible for anything? Maybe that time is coming soon, as witnessed by the numerous recent scandals and failures in government agencies where nobody is held accountable.
There is much more to be said about honesty, and I am working on a book about truth and falsity. In the meanwhile, I recommend the book by Dan Ariely, "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty."

For more about Dr. Klemm's writings, see his web site at and his blog on Improve Learning and Memory at


McBrayer, Justin P. (2015). Why our children don't think there are moral facts. New York Times. March 1. Accessed June 25, 2015.

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