Do your kids think there are “moral facts”? Are there circumstances where it is okay to lie, cheat or steal?
Philosopher and college professor Justin McBrayer concerns himself with such questions and was upset enough about what his second grader is being taught in school to air his opinion in the NY Times. He discovered that the common core curriculum, by its definitions of fact vs. opinion, teaches our children that values (or value claims as he describes them) are not facts. They are opinions.
Connecting the lessons his son is being taught in the second grade to cheating on college campuses, he observes “that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”
I sent the article to my brother who is a bit closer to this issue than I. He has worked on education issues with Georgia’s state government and his wife spent her career teaching grammar school. He expressed amazement that “parents of grade school children extend small things into the cause of the world’s problems.”
He’s probably right. But, there was something about Professor McBrayer’s argument that stuck in my head. Then, it came to me. What’s missing in his essay is any mention of a social contract, an implicit agreement among members of society who embrace a common set of values. “All Men Are Created Equal”, for example, is part of a value system that forms the basis of a social contract. In a literal sense, it is not a fact. Some people are created smarter or stronger or prettier. However, the statement — which is really meant to convey “All Men Have Equal Rights” — drives legislation and government enforcement of equal opportunity laws. That is part of the social contract that we accept prima facie.
I agree with Professor McBrayer that it’s appropriate to separate mere opinions from value statements. "Copying homework assignments is wrong" is a statement of our values and a good lesson to teach our children.
However, children’s values are learned more in their activities and day-to-day experiences than in classrooms. Kid’s taught to play golf are charged with scoring and adhering to the rules. There are valuable lessons in this activity that have nothing to do with fact vs. opinion. They have to do with personal responsibility and how we treat others. It’s a social contract of a sort.
Another example of how children learn comes from comparing parents’ behavior to what they say. You can tell your kid that it’s wrong to lie. But, they learn that lying is part of the fabric of society. If Mom tells someone how nice he or she looks and then tells Dad how awful that person looks, the kid learns that - at least in that situation - it’s okay to lie. Ultimately, they figure out that an overwhelming number of people cheat on their taxes or steal office supplies from their employers.
Teaching kids not to lie, cheat or steal is important. And, Professor McBrayer is right when he says, “consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts.”
However, in a world where the social contract is constantly evolving, distinguishing fact from opinion is an important skill. People’s values go well beyond clear rules about what is right and what is wrong and our perspective is constantly changing. Witness the change in people’s attitudes about gay marriage, for example.
Moreover, I contend that many “moral claims” are relative to culture. In a complex global community, moral relativism is required to address society’s larger issues.
In politics… How much should we tax the rich to provide for the poor?
In medicine… Should we administer an experimental drug to a critically ill patient?
In business… Are we treating our customers ethically?
In foreign affairs… When should we send troops to defend another nation?
In a post a few years ago (From Deadly Sin to Virtue), I quoted Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor and co-author of “Practical Wisdom: the Right Way to Do the Right Thing”. He compares finding what’s right to jazz improvisation. The notes are on the page but the musicians play a variation that results in beautiful music.
In American society, our response to people and institutions that are unprincipled is to create rules to govern their behavior. But, that doesn’t work. What we need, Schwartz asserts, is the moralwill to do the right thing and the skill to figure out what that is.
Let’s figure out how to teach that lesson to our children.
WHO WILL LEAD?