More on Relativism and Politics

As a moral theologian, I often think that claims about “relativism” infecting our society are overblown. Most people, most of the time, do not act as consistent relativists—at most, they view particular issues as relative, and even in these cases, their actual practice suggests implicit moral convictions. However, a recent New York Times piece about teaching a supposed “fact/opinion” distinction to second graders worried me. Domimic Preziosi also noted this piece, connecting it to the problems of artificial intelligence. But my worries are a bit more immediate and political.

The article makes some disputable particular points, but overall, the author rightly shows that a strong distinction between fact and opinion is not coherent. A supposed “fact/value” distinction was in ascendancy in some philosophical circles a century ago, but has been cogently criticized for at least fifty years. Innumerable examples can be adduced to suggest fluidity in both directions: one can have a difference of opinion about who is the best baseball player, but such opinion is itself constrained by facts—there may not be one right answer, but there are very many clearly mistaken answers. From the other direction, how one construes what “the facts” are (or at least what their significance is) is affected by what we value, the moral commitments we have. Again, from this side, we can’t completely “make up” facts, but even contemporary neuroscience affirms that what we actually “see” is affected by our commitments.

Oftentimes, it is good practice to ignore comment boxes (except at dotCommonweal, of course), but my concern was amplified by the comments that followed. The Times curates the comments, and so its “picks” rise to the top—and, astonishingly, most of the picks represent quite sane and rational responders who strongly reject the author’s claim, and who want very strongly to adhere to this distinction. As one commenter put it:

After reading many of the comments, it seems as though the great majority of the adults reading this blog don't believe in moral facts. And yet, many of them express this by vehemently claiming that McBrayer is WRONG to impose his view on others (implying that it is a moral fact that one shouldn't do this). Believing in moral facts allow us to call certain practices wrong. I believe slavery was and is wrong and that those who ever thought it was permissible had false beliefs—not just that we happened to change our feelings about it. One can believe in moral facts without being the moralistic monster many are claiming Professor McBrayer is (a judgment that seems to be based on the fact that someone apparently noticed he teaches philosophy of religion—an ad hominem if I've ever seen one). The extreme reactions here astound me.

Count me astonished, too. It is well-known that, with a depressing frequency, those on the far Right abandon reasoned discourse about what we should do; it is a supposed virtue that the political Left is more careful about these matters—say, on the economy or the environment. Yet here we have apparently well-educated Times readers displaying very fundamental irrationality. The great achievements of the Progressive Left in the last century—the New Deal, unionism, and civil rights—all sprang from quite firm moral convictions. And indeed, I still think many of these commentators in practice retain these convictions. What is alarming is that they reject a public discourse that could appeal to these moral commitments…at least as anything other than majoritarian preference.

What is going on? Another comment on the McBrayer piece might illustrate the problem:

Sorry—no deal. There is science and there is belief. We may believe something is true and it may in fact be true but sometimes we can't prove it. For example, in court, we must find, using evidence, that a person is guilty, with a very high standard of proof. We still may believe he is guilty (as in OJ, or George W. Bush) but under societal rules, it must be proven. I think the distinctions taught in the school referenced here are good ones, well-defined. Otherwise, we have two sets of facts—one that meet the test of science and one based on who-knows-what—a book perhaps, or the word of God? The aurthor references the flat-world theory. His critique had me thinking of that before he mentioned it. We need science, to validate and to resolve differences in opinion. Otherwise, some will find it true that there was no Holocaust, that the President was born in Kenya, and that the globe is not warming. Now at least, we can counter those groundless opinions with the truth.

Notice two things about this comment. First, it clearly confuses (or fuses) “moral belief” with “religious belief.” The anxiety of many commenters is that accepting “moral facts” means that we are at the mercy of Christian conservatives, who hold irrational anti-scientific views. This is a grave problem and, for Catholics sympathetic to the Left, it calls for a need to talk about both natural law and the harmony of faith and reason. That moral conviction and a religiously pluralistic society are compatible is something that Catholics should argue very strongly for. Second, the examples chosen indicate a failure to connect a fact and an account why the fact is significant and important. The commenter says that we should oppose “groundless opinions with the truth”—but chooses the examples of the Holocaust and global warming (two very different kinds of “facts”) clearly assuming (rightly!) that denying these things is a grave moral mistake, because the information is not just “information” but has significance for what we “should” do. One could respond to these facts with “so what?” or “who cares?” And the answer to those questions will involve moral commitments. The love affair with science and data—with information—obscures the “fact” (!) that information by itself can’t drive rational action. The poorly-chosen example of evidence in a court case leaves out the crucial “fact” (!) that we find people “guilty” of things because we have laws which (if they are just) identify certain actions as wrong. Laws reflect moral convictions about justice, right? If we don’t believe that, we are in big trouble. Ironically, the economic myth of perfect self-regulating markets producing “just” outcomes from individual subjective preferences is instantiated on the Left in a different form. Markets and polities are not machines that can run on information; they are collective enterprises in which we cooperate for some purpose or purposes. Whether they are working well or not can sometimes be a matter of technical efficiency, sometimes of factual clarification—but often enough, markets or societies working "well" require us collectively to articulate moral commitments about what "well" means. Or else it is just a battle of wills and power.

Elsewhere, I have suggested this is driving our society to the “libertarian default” on both sides of the political spectrum. In my own state, legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide is rapidly advancing. Even while I respect the deep dislike and fear of the medicalization of the end of life which drives these calls for “dignity,” I think this acceptance is a fundamental indication of how disposable human life is when it no longer seems “useful” to us. Yet if there is no inherent dignity in life, I suppose this is just my “opinion.” If this is what the political Left really represents, things are going to get really hard for Catholics in America.


David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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