What does “moral fact” mean?

One of the great advantages of writing a blog is that you get to decide what the title of a blog is. That is a luxury not shared by people who publish in newspapers, so I don’t really know who is responsible for this headline. On the supposition that it might be Justin McBrayer, the author, I would like to poke at it just a little. This little icon is the emblem of moral 3the philosophy series, The Stone” in the New York Times. That’s where I found McBrayer’s column.

I note, first, that although the headline implies that our children really should think that there are moral facts, McBrayer doesn’t say so directly. Second, what he says is that our children don’t think the notion of “moral fact” has meaning and this column has taken on the task of explaining why that is. Maybe they have been brainwashed. [Footnote 1, “Brainwashed” is never going to be a good word in the U. S., but I learned only recently that the Chinese notion of what brainwashing does is that it “cleanses” the mind. “Cleansing the mind” sounds a lot better. The root of the English word obscene is caenum, “filth, so “washing out the obscenity” is the kind of thing brainwashing might do and that wouldn’t be all bad.] Or they have been lied to. Maybe they are confused and unwilling to commit to a notion that has actual implications for their behavior.

To give McBrayer his due, he does answer the question. The answer is that the schools teach our students that the world of assertions can be divided usefully between “facts” and “opinions.” The curriculum has no place for an opinion I hold which is based on substantial research and consistent findings. I can see the value to McBrayer of setting the world up that way but I think he really does know that he is chasing a phantom.

We would have a better chance of understanding what the schools are doing if we thought about what they might do instead. Whatever they might choose to do, it ought to have the effect of providing a stable and useful vocabulary for discussing value questions and it ought to have a beneficial effect on the actual value choices made by students. If the schools could choose to do that and they do something else instead, surely they are to be censured.

McBrayer thinks that the schools should teach our children that there ARE moral facts. I moral 5don’t have much attraction to the notion of “fact,” myself. “Fact” is a shorthand notion like “sunrise.” All believers in a heliocentric universe agree that the Sun does’t “rise.” We say it anyway because that is the way it appears and, in ordinary conversation, there is no advantage to saying “the earth has continued it’s rotation with the effect that the Sun is now visible from this location.” It is a fact that the Sun doesn’t “rise;” it is also a widely shared opinion.

All “facts” are shorthand expressions for the great likelihood that a phenomenon, on being investigated by appropriately trained people using the right equipment will show a particular outcome. When the general feeling is that the outcome is so likely to be X (the universe really is expanding faster and faster) that there is no reason for continuing the language of “very well supported theory,” then we may call it a “fact” without messing anything up. Think of “fact” as a slang expression.

Morals aren’t like that. Morals are values that are widely shared. While etymology is not meaning, it is worth noting that we get our word moral from the Latin mos (the singular form) and especially mores, the plural. [Footnote 2, the plural word, which I now consider English, is still pronounced in the Latin style, as “more A’s” as if you wanted to have “more A’s on your transcript.  The singular is pronounces with a long o- as in “mos’ likely.”] It means “having to do with the manners or customs of a people.” I abbreviate it as “how we do things here.”

It is easy to fuse the moral and the factual at the most superficial level. “We don’t allow a female member of the family to go out in public unattended,” let’s say. If that rule is followed by everyone, then “we” = 100% of the relevant population (possibly, but not necessarily excluding the women) really don’t allow it; that is a fact about the mores of the society. (You could say it is a mos, just one of the little pieces of the mores, but no one does.) Everyone follows this rule about unaccompanied women because it is a widely shared value.

It is a moral fact. Any anthropologist would confirm that.

But that’s not what McBrayer means. McBrayer wants to say that a “moral fact” is binding on everyone; that it establishes how everyone should behave. McBrayer wants to believe that this value is TRUE, that it lines up, somehow, with a moral universe in the way that “sunrise” lines up with the physical universe. I don’t think so.

There are, of course, ways to get there. Theism is one. There is a God and God says that slavery is wrong so if you engage in being a slave or in owning a slave, you are involved in a moral wrong. I know the “being a slave” element of the formulation sounds odd, but stay with me just a moment. The great problem of this kind of objectivity is showing that there is such a being (God) and that God has distinct and unvarying views about what is permitted and that doing what God does not permit is “wrong.”

That works. But you have to get to this God first.

moral 4I mentioned slavery because there is a covenantal obligation under the Mosaic Code not to allow a fellow Israelite to be a slave. There are some when and how long and to whom complications, but I am interested in the rationale. Here it is. God chose Israel as His people; Israel as a whole nation and every Israelite. The reason it is not right for an Israelite to serve as a slave is that if he is a slave, he has a master—he belongs to someone—and, since he already belongs to God, it is not right that he belong to someone (else). So a fellow Israelite has the obligation to go and redeem this person from slavery because—here’s the rationale—God wants it that way.

Apart from a God who has distinct and knowable preferences, McBrayer’s “moral universe” is hard to know. The advantage is clear, at least. If there are objectively demonstrable values, then not acting in accord with those values is wrong. If you say “This is the way we do it in my culture” and that way does not align with the True Value, then the whole culture is wrong. If a person says that what he is doing is fully in accord with human nature, then you get to say the human nature is wrong. It clarifies things enormously.

It does skip over the transition. When Thomas Hobbes said “there is no way to get from ‘is’ to ‘ought,’” (Hess summary) he was talking about that transition. You can say that acting on a particular value will have horrendous consequences. You can say that it will make ordered society impossible. You can say that it will render the earth unlivable. Those are all good reasons to oppose those acts but they do not establish that they are opposed by a TRUTH, that is, that they are “wrong” in the way an assertion about the nature of the physical world could be wrong.

So I oppose McBrayer’s notion of “moral fact,” by which I think he means “objectively demonstrable value.” I say it can’t be objectively demonstrated and I used the Mosaic code to show how costly a counterexample can be.

On the other hand, I agree with McBrayer that our society is rapidly going to pot and that this can be seen in the decay of traditional ethics. I am an old man who has taught for most of his life. How could I not think that? He cites “Copying homework assignments is wrong” as assertion that his son is supposed to identify as a fact or an opinion. He goes on to say:

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.

He is right that what my generation called “cheating” is not understood by today’s moral 6generation of students in the same way we did and also that they do not disapprove of it in the categorical way we did. Those things are shown by survey research. But he goes on to argue that this has happened because some factual basis of the wrongness of cheating has not been taught. Really? Factual?

He imagines that there is no other reason for students to reject cheating. If everyone disapproved of cheating, the occasional person who was tempted would not succumb. Why? Because the factual status of the wrong had been established.? Of course not. He would refuse to cheat, if it ever occurred to him, because it contravenes the values of virtually everyone he knows. It puts him beyond the pale. It makes him alien.

I’m fine with that. Very negative consequences should be expected by people who violate values nearly everyone holds and that are seen as crucially important. Neither “nearly everyone holds” nor “crucially important’ adds up to “a moral fact.” And, as I see it, nothing else does either.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to What does “moral fact” mean?

  1. Norm says:

    Good post. You agree t our society is going downhill. Cheating is common, McBrayer has an explanation, do you, even a guess. Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t make it right. Surely we must have morals “best practices” we can teach by example or school or what—–or where will we end up. Moral facts, moral values, semantics, we need some and they shouldn’t be an opinion.

    • hessd says:

      I don’t know when I have written a piece that has gotten me crossways with so many people I agree with. Let’s take your example of cheating. I’m against it. I think we should teach that it is a violation of our values. When necessary, we should punish cheaters. Institutions should be set up very carefully so that cheaters are not rewarded for their wrong actions. That will do the job. “Moral facts” is a very dangerous abuse of our language and I would like to say as clear of it as we can. Thanks for the response,Norm.

      • Jeff says:

        “I think we should teach that it is a violation of our values.”

        But why? Why is “cheating” “a violation of our values”? Didn’t you point out that meaning of “cheating” has changed and that masses no longer disapprove if it? “…what my generation called “cheating” is not understood by today’s generation of students in the same way we did and also that they do not disapprove of it in the categorical way we did.” If it is clear that the “cheating” value has changed between generations, it isn’t no longer part of “our values”?

        And if it is no longer part of “our values” collectively as a society, why “we should punish cheaters”? ” Institutions should be set up very carefully so that cheaters are not rewarded for their wrong actions.” That might do the job, but who is to say that it’s a job needing to be done? Why are their actions wrong? Aren’t you expressing mere opinion here? What are your objective qualifications or criteria to make such a claim that their actions are wrong?

        “Very negative consequences should be expected by people who violate values nearly everyone holds and that are seen as crucially important.” Okay, if that’s the basis (people who violate values nearly everyone holds) for very negative consequences to be applied, what then in the case of values that nearly everyone held but no longer hold, such as in the case of cheating? I guess, then, I should not expect very negative consequences for cheating.

        If there is not something binding on everyone, then there is nothing that establishes how everyone should behave in any given situation. Concepts like “honesty” or “integrity” lose any meaning if there is no binding “should behave”–how else can I do the right thing all the time if there is no right way to behave. My read of McBrayer is that he saying that the “our value” being taught in schools that facts hold weight and opinions do not because they are just beliefs without any supporting facts. If true that the “our value” being taught in schools that facts hold weight and opinions do not, then your “should” statements above are mere opinions expressed and have no weight to the generation so taught. If you are not prepared to offer an apology (used in the “a formal justification : a reasoned defense” sense) then you are just forcing your beliefs on others by having your “shoulds” enforced.

        ““Moral facts” is a very dangerous abuse of our language”… must be a fact and not an opinion… I don’t seen any opinion, belief, etc., trigger words Common Core wants me to look for. To bad I can’t verify that.

        To echo Norm: “…McBrayer has an explanation{;} do you {have} even a guess{?} … Moral facts, moral values, semantics, we need some and they shouldn’t be {dismissed as mere, unsupportable} opinion.” And they need to be taught with intellectual consistency.

      • hessd says:

        I don’t know, Norm. It’s hard to see this going anywhere. I’ll make a few comments and give it up. You observe in the next to last paragraph that my statement (“moral facts”is an abuse of our language) must be “a fact.” I’m sure you intended to press the irony of that on me. A lot of the other paragraphs are like that, too.

        Here’s my final comment. You have argued that many really bad things will happen if there are not “moral facts.” My position is there is no such thing as a “moral fact” and that is good for all of us. You seem to feel that if there were “moral facts,” we would somehow be in a better position to enforce them. I’ve already said I think that would not help us at all and I have said why.

        I am completely comfortable with your holding a different view. If this were a coffee shop conversation, it would just be beginning and I would look forward to it. But…it isn’t. So I’ll thank you for the intensity you brought to this issue and hope we can find a way to argue in a tighter pattern next time.

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