Who gets to say what is right and what is wrong?

Who gets to say what is right and what is wrong? Is there such a thing? And if there is, on what basis can anyone claim the moral authority to judge it?

Those questions underlie a recent and very public debate. When the New York Times published Fort Lewis College Professor Justin McBrayer’s op-ed titled, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” the Times website fielded nearly 2,000 comments.

In his piece, McBrayer wrote that an overwhelming majority of college freshman “view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” He found the source of this belief in public school curricula designed to meet Common Core standards.

To this assertion, Daniel Engber writing in Slate, responds, “It’s total crap.”

Engber faults McBrayer on his methodology, claiming that he relies on “the philosopher’s favorite tools: anecdotes and intuition.” He then argues that surveys of students and young adults show that younger children believe in moral absolutes before entering their late teens, then fall into a moral relativism until they reach their thirties.

According to Engber, these survey-based studies prove that Common Core has nothing to do with the descent into moral relativism. If it did, wouldn’t younger students also be moral relativists? And besides that, studies suggest that students who were in college fifty years ago, long before the introduction of Common Core, were already more likely to be morally relativistic than were their elders or juniors.

I think Engber succeeds in refuting the idea that Common Core is the primary cause of moral relativism among college freshman. Still, the all-or-nothing approach he takes is ironic, given that he faults McBrayer (and philosophers in general) for adopting an absolutist view of things. From his all-or-nothing vantage point, Engber cannot see that Common Core might be a contributing factor to relativism among the young, even if it is not the primary cause.

It is fascinating to me that McBrayer, the “absolutist,” appeals to reason based on experience to construct his case, while Engber (whom I take to be a relativist) repeatedly appeals to a higher authority to support his views. It is just the opposite of what one would expect.

To what authority does Engber appeal? This is the most interesting feature of the dispute, and the one that best identifies the differences between them. Engber appeals to the authority of the pollster and the survey-taker. He gives no credence (at least in this essay) to either Church or reason. The weight of authority rests upon the shifting opinions of the general populace, as discovered by the social scientists and “experimental philosophers” who conduct the surveys.

This suggests that the real difference between McBrayer and Engber and the philosophical camps they represent is not that one believes in right and wrong and the other doesn’t. The real difference lies in the source of moral authority to which they turn and on which they rely.

In the past, the Church and/or the Bible was the source of moral authority for western civilization. If the Church or the Bible said it was wrong, it was wrong. Then came the Enlightenment, when God was relieved of the obligation of making moral pronouncements. That duty fell to human reason. Yet the luminaries of the period, men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant, were nevertheless convinced that reason could discover and declare moral certainties.

But neither the principles of reason nor the canons of Scripture control today’s moral high ground. Rather it is the cannons of current opinion, roaring deafeningly through omnipresent media. And, disturbingly, it not just current opinion but the forecast of future opinion that directs private conduct and public policy. It was once true, as the author of Judges wrote, that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” but now the media tells us what is right in everyone’s eyes. That is not the rule of law, but the tyranny of popular opinion.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/21/2015

A few additional thoughts: If the final paragraph in the article above accurately portrays the situation in America today, it will not be the philosopher or the priest to whom people are listening, but the pollster.

The philosopher and priest work from sources of authority in which they have confidence: from natural and/or special revelation. The pollster and experimental philosopher also work from a source of authority in which they have confidence: the revelation of public opinion.

Special revelation comes from God through prophets and apostles. Natural revelation comes through reason. But from what source (or sources) does public opinion come? Certainly not from the Church or the Academy.

And what are the themes of this new revelation? Old age is disgusting; youth alone is beautiful; one must follow his or her feelings and desires to be authentically human; truth changes with the times; humanity’s corruption will be cured through education; morality is not in any way fixed, but evolves with human wants and needs; and many others.

In this current climate, men and women who believe what Jesus believed, do what he said, and live like he lived will “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15). There are no quick fixes for our situation. What the world needs is truth; truth that is not merely proclaimed but lived.

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