Help me fairly understand the worldview which says that moral values are a function of cultures rather than a transcendent standard. I am not trying to be insulting. I assume that most people who believe that morals are rooted in culture believe that adult incest is wrong. What I am trying to understand is the secular basis for saying that something which takes place between consenting adults is wrong if there are no moral absolutes. What I am most looking for in the comments is a fair presentation of the secular position.
I am preparing to speak at a conference on the church and culture in a few weeks (More on that in the video shown at the end of this post). As a part of my preparation, I am working hard to understand secular thought and a discussion on the New York Times site has gotten my attention.
In a recent NY Times Article, Justin McBrayer (who I know neither personally nor professionally), expressed his concern that children are being taught that we cannot say that it is factually true that cheating is wrong. McBrayer summarized curriculum exercises in which children are asked to evaluate if the following statements are “facts” or “opinions.”
— Copying homework assignments is wrong.
— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
— All men are created equal.
— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.
— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
— Drug dealers belong in prison.
In each of the above cases, children are taught that these statements are opinions rather than facts. McBrayer is, rightly in my opinion, concerned. He concludes:
We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation. Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. 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. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.
Last time I checked 1,836 people had responded to McBrayer’s position. I didn’t tally responses, but many were not impressed with McBrayer’s concerns that we are not giving our children a proper moral foundation. The comments most approved by the Times staff and the readers (thereby making the top of the comments section) argued that morals can not be facts. Here are a few examples:
Grant Wiggins, NJ Yesterday
. . . Ethical statement are not facts, they are conclusions. They are principle-based judgments. So, it is a sound conclusion that one should not lie or steal if one bases one’s ethics on Kant’s categorical imperative or the Golden Rule more generally. To call such a conclusion a “fact” is to conflate facts with reasoned inferences.
Lauren, San Diego Yesterday
The fact is there are no moral facts. Morals are relative to the culture that created them. The problem is how they are being taught to ignore the morals of our society. . .
So the problem is not that they are teaching that there are no moral facts, its that they are teaching kids that they can have their own opinions on things that are not socially acceptable in the society and culture they live in.
Virgil (md) Yesterday
. . . The GLARING flaw of this article is that the author assumes moral fact is not only true but preferable. Not only does he over look a pretty significant realm of philosophic thought but he also offers no evidence to support his assertion that moral truths should be taught in school. Ultimately you are free to take whichever view you like but the problem with moral absolutists, people like the author, who believe things are right or they are wrong is that those views are not absolute. Exceptions can be found to every rule imaginable.
Ultimately, the author discounts the power of personal morals. I do not need to believe that killing another person goes against nature on a cosmic scale to believe it is wrong to do it myself. Yes it is an opinion that cheating is wrong, I share that opinion. But I see no evidence to suggest that is a fact.
Carl (Basel) Yesterday
If there were such a thing as a moral fact it would be consistent throughout the ages, different cultures and species.
Morality is in a stage of flux. Our Opinions and Morals have changed drastically in the last few years towards homosexuality, in the last few decades toward racism and sexism and in the past centuries towards slavery.
. . . We all understand that a society needs a moral structure that we can all (or at least most) agree and act on but this moral structure is not carved in stone and will constantly adapt to the needs and opinions of its society.
In my mind, these questions raise an obvious question. If morals are rooted in the beliefs and feelings of people – – then are we saying that polygamy is a legitimate option for cultures? Bestiality? Someone might respond, “But our culture does not believe those options are okay.” Understood. But what if a majority did?