National School Lessons Teach Skepticism of Moral Truths

Contemporary public school education teaches children what amounts to moral relativism. That's a serious problem, explains philosophy professor Justin McBrayer.

In contemporary public school education, a core concept that teachers emphasize is the difference between facts and opinions. But the simplicity with which these terms are defined results in teaching what amounts to moral relativism, explains Fort Lewis College philosophy professor Justin P. McBrayer at The New York Times.

There is no question that schools, teachers, and creators of the Common Core curriculum (which emphasizes the distinction as a crucial learning tool) have good intentions. At first glance, the distinction seems like a credible way of teaching topics ranging from media literacy and rhetoric to basic scientific competency. Let's look at how the terms are defined:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

There are several problems with this simplicity, says McBrayer, such as the many "facts" proven true at one time by incomplete science, e.g., phrenology and the claim that the Earth is flat. Also, facts obtain their potency through our belief in them, so facts and ideas are not exclusive concepts. But more troublesome still is that the distinction prevents moral claims from being thought of as factual. 

Statements like, "Copying homework assignments is wrong," and, "All men are created equal," are classified as mere opinion because they make claims about our values, which, of course, we think, feel, and believe to be true.

"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."

McBrayer points to increased rates of cheating on college campuses as a moral hazard that results from a curriculum that treats truth as something only verifiable by rudimentary scientific tools rather than by the strength and validity of moral feeling. McBrayer says understanding which moral truths are valid and which are not is hard work, but that we shouldn't shirk our responsibilities just because of that.

"Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. 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. That would be wrong."

Read more at The New York Times.

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