This is a guest post by David Park, a philosophy graduate of Rutgers University and a Masters of Divinity Student at Westminster Theological Seminary.
The New York Times recently released an opinion piece by Justin McBrayer which sharply diagnoses the trend of current K-12 education in America. He writes that it raises students who enter the world of higher education with a predisposition towards moral relativism. He writes, “While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”
As a professional philosopher, McBrayer perceptively detects where the errors are in such a curriculum. He narrows it down to two things: the confusion between the definition of fact as it pertains to “truth” and “proof”, and the teaching of the unfounded mutual exclusivity between fact and opinion.
These two errors lead naturally to moral relativism, which he seems to believe is a naïve and untenable position, especially once the children “mature into” the adult world, where the stakes are greater, and the need to exercise moral reasoning is elevated.
He criticizes the public school system for setting up children for inconsistent doublethink. “They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.” His criticism is on point, and I would agree with him that moral relativism is an inconsistent perspective, and is impossible to live out in practice.
However, I think it is his proposed solution that leaves him in a position no better than the original. He writes, “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.” In other words, with the use of human reason, we can infer based on certain evidences that certain moral claims are true and others false. But this can only be true under the assumption that all evidences are interpreted in the same way by all people, which is clearly not the case. Presuppositions matter. Evidences are interpreted by each person according to his underlying worldview. And if so, McBrayer’s proposal seems to be fundamentally no different from the critique he offered previously concerning the teachings at his son’s elementary school: “If proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it, but not a fact for you if you can’t.” What is evidence for me may not be evidence for you, and thus we are left at an impasse. What I consider obvious moral truth may also be an obvious instance of immorality for you!
We can ask, “Well, where does the evidence lead? My position or yours?” But our fundamental presuppositions will determine how we interpret those evidences as well, leaving us in the same impasse as before. McBrayer’s position leads to the same inevitable moral relativism, insofar as the ultimate arbitration of what is true and what is false rests on human reason as its foundation. In order for something to be objective, it needs to be binding independent of our personal opinions, whether those opinions are arrived at through an acknowledgement of moral relativism and the consequent arbitrary values which an individual chooses to accept according to his preference, or, they are arrived at by some supposedly external system of determination (whether through utilitarianism, Kantian Categorical Imperatives, or common sense realism).
And herein lies the problem: while McBrayer keenly observes the inconsistency and absurdity of moral relativism, he wishes to solve the problem while standing on the same foundation as the moral relativists, namely, that human reason is what determines what is true and what is false. We can come up with an elaborate moral system built upon certain moral axioms, but those axioms, unless grounded in something external to our reason, ultimately is nothing but arbitrary grasping in the dark for whatever makes us feel better.
I believe the reason why the public schools teach moral relativism is because they operate from the supposedly “default” position of atheism. Furthermore, I would go so far as to say that, in actuality, the moral relativists, coming from an atheistic worldview, are more consistent with their fundamental worldview than McBrayer is, insofar as they are both coming from a position in which human reason is the arbiter of truth. He noticed the error in the moral relativists, but that is merely the logical conclusion of the epistemological position held by one whose arbiter of truth is his own reason in the first place. So in his quest for discovering truth, and finding out what exactly is true and what is false with regards to moral claims, I think it would be helpful if he recognized the futility of trying to find objective meaning within his own subjective reason, and instead rest on the firm foundation of God’s revelation as the solely qualified standard upon which we can rationally stand.
I believe the solution has to go deeper than the “examine the evidence” approach that McBrayer suggests. It’s not enough to simply try to argue the evidences. All people have an implicit commitment to a particular epistemic system, whether they articulate it or not, and that already conditions the way in which each person will interpret whichever evidence is presented to them. There is no such thing as a default position of “neutral rationality”. People are rational creatures, but their rationality is not exercised in a vacuum. It’s not hard to see this at play in today’s society at large, and not just in the K-12 American education curriculum. We see this at play in the way people discuss the issues of homosexuality, abortion, gun laws, animal rights, and so on. Different people look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions.
It thus seems to me that any attempt to determine the truth or falsehood of moral claims from the foundation of autonomous subjective reasoning, ultimately cannot avoid moral relativism. What is plausible for one is implausible for another. No amount of “examining the evidence” can ever root people out of their social, cultural, and personal backgrounds to think in some purely objective fashion. And insofar as we place subjective human reason at the pinnacle of moral arbitration, I don’t think we can avoid the pure relativization of not simply moral truths, but any truth at all. McBrayer’s efforts, then, seem misdirected. Perhaps what is more needed is addressing the preconditions for our knowledge of moral truth. If we presuppose the autonomy of human rationality, the inevitable conclusion is moral relativism. However, if we presuppose the Christian triune God, whose perfectly good and holy attributes are manifested analogically in his creation, that alone, allows us to escape the chaotic sea of moral relativism, and we can ground our moral values in something that is indeed objective.
Indeed, it seems to me that such presupposition (of the Christian God) is unavoidable. Only the Christian God as revealed in the Bible can serve as a rational foundation for any moral claims at all. And as long as we make moral claims with the assumption that they are true, we are working from the foundations of the Christian worldview. We need to go past a simple, naïve “examination of evidences” to a deeper discussion on the foundations of worldviews, and which can render intelligible the human experience.