Two recent articles came across my desk, both focused on the problem of moral relativism, and both appearing in an unlikely place: The New York Times.
One essay, “The Cost of Relativism,” comes from David Brooks, a long-time and well-known journalist. The other, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” is written by a lesser-known academic, a professor of philosophy to be specific, Dr. Justin McBrayer.
DON’T BLAME THE ACADEMICS!
Dr. McBrayer is reluctant to lay blame at the feet of higher education academics for the moral relativism so common today among Americans, including those of school age. Instead, he points an accusing finger at K-12 education, reporting on widespread pedagogies and widely used curricula that emphasize the distinction between “facts” versus “values” or “opinions.”
Indeed, beginning at the elementary level, many American schools today teach our children that a “fact” is “something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven,” to quote from Dr. McBrayer’s essay, while a “value” or an “opinion” is simply something subjective that one “thinks, feels, or believes.”
The problem that Dr. McBrayer rightly identifies is that modern education assumes, without proof, that there are no moral facts, and therefore no moral truth. Believing that cheating on exams, or murder, or tyranny is wrong is reduced to a subjective, arbitrary “value,” no better or worse, and certainly no more true (or false) than opposing “values.” In this, modern education is not only failing our children. It’s setting them up for a lifetime of miserable moral failures and wrecks.
More, how does any academic know with scientific knowledge that there are no moral facts? Isn’t the belief that there are no moral facts itself an arbitrary, unscientific, irrational prejudice? If we were to divide the world into “facts” versus “values,” per the thesis demanded by modern academic “scientists,” under which column would we place the statement: There are no moral facts, only values! Is that a statement of objective “fact,” or irrational “value?” If it’s the latter, are not modern academics, teachers, and researchers betraying their very own principle by asserting as a “fact” what is in their eyes merely a “value?”
WHO TEACHES THE TEACHERS?
It’s curious that Dr. McBreyer keeps the spotlight away from higher education and focused on K-12. After all, where were all the K-12 teachers, curriculum designers, and other education bureaucrats, educated? Where did they learn the idea that there are no moral facts, only subjective, irrational “values?”
They learned those ideas from within the very halls of higher education where Dr. McBrayer and many others teach, research, and pass along their thoughts to budding students, many of whom go on to become teachers of various kinds in various settings.
Perhaps no single mind did more to establish the modern thesis that “values” are fundamentally different than “facts,” and to inject those categories into our common vocabulary, than Max Weber, the German thinker who helped to pioneer the modern academic discipline of sociology, and whose influence continues to reach deep into departments of anthropology, psychology, political science and other social sciences.
MEET MAX WEBER: NIETZSCHE-LITE
Weber represented a kind of Nietzsche-lite. Where Weber held out hope that at least some forms of knowledge can be scientific, objective, and therefore consist of true “facts,” Friedrich Nietzsche attacked the very idea of objectivity itself. For Nietzsche, there is nothing other than values, no facts at all. For Nietzsche, every human attempt at gaining knowledge is nothing but a prejudiced “perspective,” including all of modern science.
Weber wasn’t willing to go that far into the abyss of nihilism, which is what made his teaching more palatable for modern academic, scientific minds. Armed with Weberian theory, modern academicians could confidently argue that their research and findings are “true” and “factual,” while the moral opinions of ordinary people are just that: opinions, prejudices, or irrational beliefs.
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate how successful this body of thought has been in the world of higher education. Virtually all modern social science today rests on the premise that any statement of moral ends or goals is irrational and therefore unsuited for serious academic study or consideration. But given a preferred moral end or goal, social science boasts that it can provide technical knowledge of the technical means to achieve any end with “scientific” objectivity.
THE MODERN ACADEMY: RETAIL SANITY AND WHOLESALE MADNESS
Social science, in other words, provides the scientific research tools to aid tyranny no less than freedom, vice no less than virtue. But on the question of which is morally superior – tyranny or freedom, vice or virtue – much of the modern academic world says that it has no answer because such a question falls entirely within the realm of subjective “values.” Means can be scientifically, reasonably, objectively designed and tested, after all, but ends are nothing but irrational prejudices. Modern academics is like retail sanity in the service of wholesale madness.
This inability to think clearly and critically about moral ends, or the moral facts of life, spreads far beyond the ivy towers of college campuses. Those who study and teach in America’s colleges and universities are often the thought leaders who shape popular culture. Ideas that begin as some research paper or doctoral dissertation often end up in the ether all around us. We absorb ideas, whether we experience direct instruction about them or not. Osmosis happens with ideas over time.
Witness: Few people today have ever read or even heard of Max Weber, yet almost everyone speaks in the vocabulary of Weberian “values,” a term unknown before the early 20th century. Communists have “values.” Feminists have “values.” Christians have “values.” Environmentalists have “values.” Liberals and conservatives have “values.” But mention the possibility of moral facts, and one instantly sees many heads tilted in confusion and disagreement. Witness the cultural osmosis of ideas.
CULTURAL OSMOSIS OF IDEAS
And that leads to the problem that Mr. Brooks examines: the dissolution of the moral fabric of modern America. He rightly suggests that in many parts of America, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father … no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.” He goes on to explain:
These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Indeed. Nothing has transformed the world of education or influenced the modern American mind in recent generations more than the notion that “judgmentalism” is the only remaining “wrong,” because any attempt to discriminate or judge between objective right and wrong is arbitrary, irrational, and impossible.
Reflecting upon this problem, many people reach instantly for religion. They seem to think that if they tout a religious book or a church loudly enough, others will be persuaded to think as do they. But religion is in no way immune from the acidic effects of relativism. Religion too can be reduced to an irrational prejudice. Many deeply pious religious believers today buy right into the language of relativism: they often qualify any statement of their moral-religious views with something like: “That’s just my belief – I’m not judging others who think differently.”
FREEDOMTRUST: INVESTING IN BETTER HIGHER EDUCATION FOR THE FUTURE
A nation of people who become convinced that they cannot know right from wrong is nothing less than cultural suicide. A nation of free men and women who become convinced that they cannot know if freedom is morally superior to tyranny is nothing less than political suicide.
The goods news is that we know the source of these ideas. They did not spring up from the ground. They were not part of some populist, grass-roots movement. These ideas come from academic minds. And that is why we ought to pay attention to the character of our own academies of higher education. That is why we created FreedomTrust.