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ChatGPT Holds These Truths to be Self-Evident

ChatGPT thinks it knows what it means to be an American. Is it right? 

The United States, we say, is a “creedal nation,” a nation bound together not by blood or by soil but by common acceptance of a set of ideas. The catch is that there is no official version of the American Creed that one can memorize and recite. We learn this Creed over time, from each other, in conversation. Oh, and the other catch is that it’s never really finished; like the ship of Theseus, it retains its essential nature even as its constituent parts are renewed or replaced over time. Which is to say: the American Creed is a living tradition, almost 250 years in the making, and with God’s help it will go on living for many more.

We talk quite a bit about this in my class on free speech, to make the point that free speech is not all about arguments and truth claims; it’s also about the creation and transmission of shared culture, which is an essential element of any healthy society. The events we commemorate, the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the movies we watch all play their part in making our society what it is.

In class, I give the students an unreasonably long1 collection of famous texts from the American canon, arranged chronologically from 1776 to 2020. The entire collection runs to more than 10,000 words, so I wait for them to complain about the length (because that’s part of the fun for a teacher in a boys’ high school) and then tell them that each student will read only one third of the texts—the early, middle, or late third of the anthology. Interestingly—and reassuringly—when we discuss the content of the American Creed in class, the same elements ring true for everyone regardless of which slice he got to read. In other words, the tradition uniformly affirms natural rights, ordered liberty, the rule of law, respect for human dignity, and so on, and we pick this up from the discourse of any era. When someone introduces a new note, it stands out precisely because the tradition as a whole shows such strong continuity in other respects. 

I’ve sometimes finished off this unit by asking the students to distill their own American Creed from the readings. (It’s harder than it sounds; take out a blank sheet of paper and try it.) This assignment requires what Mortimer Adler called “syntopical reading”: the ability to understand one idea better by reading many distinct but overlapping treatments of that idea by various thinkers. But in 2024 I had to reconsider this testing strategy due to the recent emergence of “large language models” like ChatGPT. Specialists debate whether these models deserve their popular label as “artificial intelligence” or “AI,” but what is not debatable is that they present new challenges for teachers. In the pre-internet era, a teacher assigning an essay or research paper had to worry about plagiarism from an encyclopedia, but that was likely to be easy to detect. With the internet, the number of sources from which a student (or university president) could copy multiplied almost without limit, but plagiarism could still be confirmed by a teacher searching for particular phrases and finding the originals the same way the student did. The special challenge of AI bots like ChatGPT is that they generate new text based on the specific words of the question asked, and this text cannot be found by a teacher who suspects it has been copied. 

Was the assignment I wanted to give no longer practicable in the age of large language models? Writing an American Creed syntopically would have to be done at home, because it requires more wrestling with the texts and the ideas than I could reasonably expect anyone to do during an in-class test. But if I made it a take-home assignment, would ChatGPT make it too easy for a student to skip the wrestling and give me an answer that wasn’t really his? Or was it possible that syntopical reading is such a high-level skill that ChatGPT wouldn’t do it very well and wouldn’t be worth copying? I needed to find out. 

On February 12, 2024, I asked ChatGPT the following: “The United States has long considered itself a nation united by ideas rather than by ethnicity or geography. Compose an ‘American Creed’ that includes all the major elements of the ideology that all good Americans are supposed to accept.” Here’s what I got back:

The American Creed is a set of principles and ideals that unite the diverse people of the United States, transcending differences in ethnicity, geography, and background. It is a shared belief system that forms the foundation of American identity. While there may be variations in individual interpretations, the following elements capture the essence of the American Creed:

1. Equality and Justice for All:

• All individuals, regardless of their background, should be treated with equal respect and dignity.

• The pursuit of justice is a fundamental principle, ensuring fairness and impartiality in the legal system. 

2. Individual Liberty and Freedom:

• Every American has the right to personal freedom, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

• The government exists to protect these individual liberties, fostering an environment where citizens can thrive.

3. Opportunity and Mobility:

• The American Dream emphasizes the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve success through hard work and determination.

• Social mobility is a key aspect, allowing individuals to improve their circumstances regardless of their starting point.

4. Democracy and Civic Participation:

• The power of the government is derived from the people, who participate in the democratic process through elections and civic engagement.

• Civic responsibility is integral to the functioning of a healthy democracy.

5. Pluralism and Diversity:

• The United States celebrates and embraces its diverse population, recognizing that strength lies in differences.

• Mutual respect and understanding are crucial for a society composed of various ethnicities, religions, and cultures.

6. Rule of Law:

• All individuals, including those in positions of power, are subject to the same laws and legal principles.

• The rule of law ensures a just and orderly society.

7. Innovation and Progress:

• America values innovation, progress, and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

• A commitment to education and technological advancements fosters continuous growth.

8. Community and Social Responsibility:

• Americans recognize the importance of community and collective responsibility.

• Helping others, both locally and globally, is an essential part of being a good citizen.

9. National Identity Beyond Ethnicity:

• Being an American is defined by shared values and a commitment to the principles outlined in the Constitution, transcending ethnic or racial backgrounds.

10. Patriotism with Open-Mindedness:

• Patriotism involves love for one’s country while remaining open-minded to constructive criticism and a commitment to continuous improvement.

This American Creed reflects the ideals that bind the nation together, providing a framework for a diverse and dynamic society that continually aspires to live up to these principles.

I found this answer disconcertingly competent. ChatGPT generated in seconds a pretty good summary of the tradition, one that would have taken a good student hours. We have the luxury of knowing this answer was AI-generated, so it’s easy to quibble with it. Indeed, because it’s AI-generated, I want to quibble; I’m even a little desperate to quibble, or even to nitpick it in a way I would never nitpick a student essay. And that’s what I found so disconcerting. A year ago, I thought the best of ChatGPT’s output would deserve a B or B+, and quite a bit of it was much worse. This time, I thought that while the answer wasn’t perfect, a student who created this from scratch overnight would richly deserve an A. 

At first I thought that meant I had to retire the question; it’s my responsibility to create a testing environment that is fair to all students, and that requires me to be able to detect cheating. But necessity being the mother of invention, I decided to turn the tables and let ChatGPT write the question instead of the answer. That is, instead of asking students to synthesize an American Creed from the readings we studied in class, I gave them ChatGPT’s Creed and asked them to compare it to our readings. They could either note ways in which ChatGPT’s Creed reflected our readings, or—and this was more interesting—they could identify a value that appeared in our readings but did not make it onto ChatGPT’s list, and explain why it should be included. Several of the answers to this question not only bested ChatGPT, but pointed the way toward the kind of learning that is likely to become even more important as the amount of artificial (literally mindless) content in circulation grows. 

For example, ChatGPT’s first two principles, “Equality and Justice for All” and “Individual Liberty and Freedom,” focus on civil liberties we enjoy as Americans, and it does seem appropriate to have these principles right up front. But our tradition also states, foundationally and unambiguously, that these are natural rights, with which “all men … are endowed by their Creator,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence. Several students noticed that ChatGPT never mentions our Creator, nor any other source for the rights ChatGPT says we enjoy. In fact, on closer inspection, nothing in ChatGPT’s Creed affirms that these are natural rights, rights we enjoy by virtue of our common humanity rather than by the sufferance of any government on earth. ChatGPT’s Creed says that Americans happen to enjoy certain rights, but nothing in ChatGPT’s Creed states or even implies that it would be unjust for any government to take them away. 

Other students noticed something odd about ChatGPT’s affirmation that we all have “the right to personal freedom, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.” “Pursuit of happiness” is unmistakably from the Declaration, but the original triad was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” ChatGPT seems to have doubled up on liberty (“personal freedom” and “autonomy” are both types of liberty) while omitting any mention of “life.” Huh. It’s odd, to say the least, for ChatGPT to replace the well-known formulation of the Declaration of Independence with something so inelegant, pleonastic, and incomplete.

It is tempting to frame this as an issue of political bias embedded in AI models, because the omission—excision, really—of any reference to God or to a right to life, when both are plainly part of our tradition, are two dots begging to be connected. But that’s not my point here. After all, it might be that answers referring to atheism or a right to abortion are equally disfavored by ChatGPT’s code, and I wouldn’t like the excision of major elements of the tradition any better even if it were politically neutral. 

I wish instead to draw attention to the implication that the rise of AI makes it simultaneously harder to teach critical thinking and more essential to learn it. It is harder to teach for all the reasons teachers have bemoaned in the past two years, including the concerns that almost made me abandon the Creed-formulation assignment. But it is more essential than ever because it took actual intelligence to detect what artificial intelligence deleted from our shared understanding of the nation. The students who noticed ChatGPT’s omissions had to be familiar with the canonical sources of the tradition—or less grandly, they had to have read Handout 2-3 in my class. They had to be good at the close and careful reading of texts. And they needed to have some experience with canonical concepts like “natural rights”—because that concept was not named by ChatGPT, and therefore its omission could never be noticed by close reading alone. The students, in short, are more in need than ever of a strong liberal arts education.

Poor thinkers have always been easy prey for charlatans, shysters, demagogues, and dictators, so any technology that makes it even easier to misrepresent the truth for personal gain is bound to be bad news for poor thinkers. People who can’t be bothered to fact-check anything will still be in trouble; but now those who do try to verify what they read and hear will need to think critically not only about the original representation of fact, but about each of the corroborating sources they’re finding, and so on. It will be turtles all the way down, and only informed and moderate skepticism employed by real intelligence has any hope of keeping a person out of trouble.

So as teachers, we have to help our students develop this. We cannot throw up our hands and decide to retire tough questions, as I almost did. We need instead to raise the bar for ourselves so we can keep holding the bar high for the students. That’s a tall order. But as a great American once said, 

I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 1961)

  1. The Declaration of Independence (1776); George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796); Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne (1830); Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863); Theodore Roosevelt’s “True Americanism” (1894); Katharine Lee Bates’s “America the Beautiful” (1895); Justice Brandeis’s concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927); Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress (1941); Learned Hand’s “Spirit of Liberty” speech to newly naturalized citizens (1944); John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (1961); Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963); Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address (1989); Judge William Young’s remarks at the sentencing of “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid (2003); John McCain’s “Farewell Message” (2018); and John Lewis’s “Last Words” (2020). Naturally, part of what it means for this to be a tradition is that the earlier elements enjoy a preeminence within the tradition that more recent additions could scarcely have acquired so quickly. 

Mark Grannis teaches logic and history at The Heights. He is the author of The Reasonable Person: Traditional Logic for Modern Life, and most recently, a Teacher’s Supplement for The Reasonable Person.

About the Author

Mark Grannis

Philosophy, History

Mark Grannis joined the faculty in 2019 to teach Logic and History, after practicing law for over thirty years and managing the firm he co-founded in 1998. He holds an A.B., cum laude, from Georgetown University, where he majored in Government and Economics. He holds a J.D., cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School, where he served as an editor of the Michigan Law Review and won several awards for his writing. In 2023, he published The Reasonable Person: Traditional Logic for Modern LifeHe and his wife Sarah have two children, including Will (’21). They live in Chevy Chase with the majestically indifferent Cyrus, King of Purrrrsia.

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