The K-12 Roots of Moral Relativism

Link to the March 2, 2015 New York Times article “Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts” by Justin P. McBrayer

When I was in college, I had many discussions over breakfast, lunch and dinner in Quincy House about whether there was any such thing as truth. My classmates were very quick to take a relativist line, while I argued that there was such a thing as truth. Justin McBrayer, in the article linked above, explains why not only my classmates, but most young adults are so well prepared to take the relativist line. He writes:

When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

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

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes. …

… students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. …

Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. …

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.

Thought of as abstract philosophy, this may not be a very deep position, but it may not seem much worse than many other areas of shallow teaching. But Justin argues that a simplistic belief in moral relativism can have a corrosive effect on moral judgments and even on behavior: 

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. 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.

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

The irony is that the urge to separate out facts from opinions or facts from values stems itself from an important value: the value on telling truth according to one’s best judgement of the science, even if telling the truth does not seem likely to move the debate about a political or moral issue in the direction one believes in. This in turn is grounded in the belief that involving many well-intentioned people who have different points of view in the attempt to grind out moral truth in a serious moral debate based on true facts is much more likely to home in on the relevant moral truth than short-circuiting the debate by deception in order to favor one’s own heartfelt views. In moral matters, telling the truth is a sign of respect for other human beings and the value of their views, too.