Monday, March 09, 2015

"That Would Be Wrong"

I consider myself to be a moral person. I'll bet you consider yourself to be one as well, even as you may not find me to be one or vice versa. That's because each of us carry within our psyche our own unique moral code, resulting from the individual lives we have lived. Of course, I'm aware that many people assert that there is but one "proper" morality, derived, for instance, from their preferred religious doctrine, philosophy, or creed. I had an old friend, with whom I've recently re-connected, tell me that I'm going to hell unless I practice his preferred religious and moral code, no matter how perfectly I otherwise live my life. Maybe he's right, I don't know. It's a possibility even as I'm confident that I'm on a straight and true moral path.

This is why it's so hard to talk about morality. I'm quite certain that even fellow members of my friend's congregation, when it comes right down to it, differ with him on at least some of the particulars of living a moral life, because that's the way it works. Most of us start with some version of "do unto others," but even then, there remains an infinite universe of gray. That isn't to say that my own morality isn't stark black and white, there are things I will always do and things I will never do, and as long as I'm free to live my own isolated life I'm golden. The gray comes when I am trying to live with the other people and find that their morals and my morals are at odds and we must nevertheless figure out how to live together.

This is the greatest challenge, I think, of democracy. In a very real sense, self-governance is about creating a public morality, one upon which we can build our laws, our agreements about living with one another. And this public morality is derived from, but inevitably differs from, each of our personal sense of morals. In that sense, we will all always be to some degree dissatisfied with "we the people." 

Indeed, it's a kind of miracle we can do this at all, because people rarely compromise with their morals. And it's impossible to have a productive discussion when that's where people start the conversation. If you and I disagree and I begin my argument by asserting my moral values, the conversation might as well be over. If I'm going to insist that public morality match my private morality, we will never get anywhere. 

The other challenge with discussing moral values, at least the ones that belong to other people, is that we tend to box them up into the category of "opinion" rather than "fact," meaning something that is unprovable via normal scientific methods. And even while I disagree with my friend who believes I'm going to hell, I have many more friends who have succumbed to the cult of facts. Just because something is untestable doesn't mean it's not a fact and this is especially true when it comes to morals.

For instance, everyone who is not a psychopath would agree that it's immoral to kill another person "for fun." I would assert that this is a moral fact even if it's unprovable. And we all know that human history is full of examples of things that were once "proven," which later turned out to be false.

This is a long introduction by way to steering you to a fascinating piece entitled "Our Children Don't Think There Are Moral Facts" by philosophy professor Justin  P. McBrayer that recently appeared on one of the New York Times blogs,

". . . (T)he definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof -- two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once "proved" turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought the earth was flat. It's a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, 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. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me."

Lately, I've read a number of pieces that have attempted to get at "what's wrong with America" by explaining why so many of us "fly from facts" when they challenge our deeply held beliefs. Scientists have studied this, usually however, making the same mistake McBrayer is writing about, conflating truth with something that can be scientifically proven, ignoring the greater fact that something may well be true even if it can't be proven.

Last week, the children played "traffic" at school, setting up roads, wielding signs, and, yes, creating rules by which most of the kids, most of the time, abided, much the way we adults do it. It wasn't always pretty as the children argued, cried, and shouted their way through to their decisions, each compromising a little here and a little there until they had something new. Many of the kids behaved, from my adult perspective, quite irrationally, digging in their heels over what I saw as meaningless. It was a fascinating discussion even as it got quite emotional. "Reasonable" points about traffic flow and cooperation were given equal weight to fussy petulance supported by nothing more than "I don't want to back up." Facts and beliefs, even moral ones, were considered with equal weight. It was hard for me to not leap in and take sides, to push a "common good" solution or to insist upon "majority rule," but instead I simply repeated the arguments the children were making, only occasionally rephrasing something for the sake of clarity. It was hard work, but we somehow managed to reach a kind of stasis, a public morality, in which we were able to live together and traffic flowed.

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 . . . That would be wrong.

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1 comment:

Angela Willis said...

That was beautifully written. It's hard to get along and compromise to other people's beliefs. I am a Christian and my partner is a Buddhist and we are traveling over that shaky ground together. How wonderful you were able yo allow the children to work toward a solution, no matter how emotional or deeply held their beliefs were.

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