“Fact or Opinion?”: Roots of Relativism in an Ethical Dilemma

Quiz Time?

The Juniors in Moral Theology class glance furtively at each other as Mr. Gleason passes out what appears to be a quiz. The unspoken question is answered, “Gentlemen, this is not for a grade. I simply want you to write next to each statement whether it is a fact or an opinion. We will be discussing this in class.” A few of the boys visibly relax. Fifteen minutes later the class begins what will become a lengthy and heated discussion, spanning multiple class periods, on matters foundational not only for moral theology but, as the students come to realize, a debate that has decisive implications for how we understand our common humanity.

The “fact or opinion” exercise is hardly original. Similar exercises can be found in curricula aligned with the common core standards, which is most curricula published today. Beginning as young as kindergarten and continuing through the elementary grades, students are asked to distinguish between a statement of fact – defined as expressing only what actually happened, or what could be proven by objective data – from a statement of opinion – defined as expressing an attitude toward something, a judgment, view, or a conclusion that cannot be proven true or false. Mainstream curriculum materials emphasize that anything people disagree about must be a matter of opinion; to be a fact, something must be objectively verifiable. Many Heights students have completed these types of exercises before coming to The Heights.

Much of Mr. Gleason’s fact-opinion survey is not controversial. As much as diehard fans may waggishly assert otherwise, there is no serious disagreement that the statement “Arsenal is the best soccer team in the world” is an opinion. Similarly, all agree that the statements “mammals are warm-blooded animals” and “water boils at one hundred degrees centigrade” are both facts.

Enter Ethics

Things become interesting, however, when it comes to ethical statements. There is substantial disagreement about whether such statements as “the sexual exploitation of children is immoral,” and other similar statements, are best classified as fact or opinion. At first, the majority of Heights students identify such statements as opinions. This is very much in line with the common notions that facts must be objectively verifiable and that disagreement is a sure sign of opinion, a paradigm that is supported widely by our culture in addition to the mainstream educational system.

But there are some students who push back against this paradigm, asserting, for example, that the statement “it is evil to perform human sacrifice as a form of religious expression” is factually true. Over the course of several classes and after rigorously examining the foundational philosophical questions this exercise uncovers, most of the class agrees that even if we can continue to use the word “opinion” to describe ethical statements, it is also important to recognize their objective validity. In other words, the class comes to understand that some opinions are also facts. Just because we may disagree with the reasons the Nazi regime had for its genocidal policies does not mean that the conflicting opinions are equally valid; that the Nazis were objectively wrong is rightly considered as factually true. Moral relativism, the belief that ethical statements are, by their very nature, non-universal and instead only valid within a particular community, is false.

The Roots of Relativism

That moral relativism is a serious problem today is not particularly surprising. After all, many in our culture fail to see the truth that each human person, regardless of race, ability, wealth, or other circumstances, has infinite dignity as created in the image and likeness of God. And we as a society are not clear that it is always wrong to take innocent human life, regardless of the circumstances. Just as G. K. Chesterton asserts that a student of history has ample empirical evidence for the Christian doctrine of original sin, so contemporary ethical confusion demonstrates our failure to recognize the truth in ethical matters that transcend the values of particular communities.

What is surprising is how ingrained relativism is in our mindset and why this is so. Undoubtedly, some readers have already been surprised to learn that the majority of Heights students initially indicated that ethical statements are best classified as opinions. I am proud of the fact that a significant minority of our students saw the problem from the start and boldly and correctly recognized the importance of defending the objectivity of such statements, identifying them as facts, however awkward the term. The idea for this survey comes from a teacher at a Catholic school in the Midwest who begins his Moral Theology class with a similar survey. His experience has been that nearly all students not only identify moral statements as opinions, but that they defend this paradigm when challenged. Their ingrained perspectives see anyone who would assert otherwise as judgmental. This teacher spends months engaging the students in Socraticdiscussion to disavow them of their moral relativism (with great success, by the way).

Return to Truth: Bring Back Reason

Why are we so susceptible to moral relativism today? Why is it not as simple as just knowing right from wrong? The survey is an effective teaching tool because it directs our focus to the heart of the problem, at least the heart of the intellectual side of the problem, which is scientism. Scientism is the false belief that objective knowledge can only be reached by the methods of the modern natural sciences. According to this ideology, the only things objectively knowable are facts that can be verified empirically from experimental evidence interpreted through mathematical models. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us in his “Regensburg Address” and elsewhere, our humanity suffers when we thus limit the scope of human reason.

A critique of scientism has nothing to do with being anti-science. We should embrace the knowledge and technology made possible by modern science. The ancients, like Aristotle, were shortsighted not to make better use of controlled experiments, especially when doing so could easily test, for example, whether heavy bodies do, in fact, fall faster than light ones. The path forward is not to turn back the clock to before the Enlightenment, when a truncated version of human reason was exalted, but rather to integrate all that is objectively known through modern empirical science with a more expansive understanding of human reason and knowledge.

There are insights from the tradition, fully compatible with modern science, that help us to make better sense of the world around us. For example, there is no contradiction between modern science and understanding things as having natures or essences in the classical sense. Aristotle’s famous definition of nature as “a principle and cause of being at motion and being at rest that is in the thing to which it belongs primarily and in virtue of itself” is just as defensible today as in past times. An overly mechanical understanding of nature as passive modular construction units (particles) arranged in functional configurations governed by forces, in addition to being deficient philosophically, is not supported by modern science. Werner Heisenberg famously noted that, on a subatomic level, matter appears closer to Aristotle’s notion of prime matter than to Democritus’s notion of small particles. Likewise, contemporary biology is going through a rediscovery of the fundamental importance of considering the whole organism as something irreducible to its parts (as in emergence).

False Dichotomies and True Paths Forward

To our point, the false belief that the natural world is knowable only through the methods of the empirical sciences is dangerous from an ethical perspective. If we see the world, including the human person, in overly mechanistic terms, then it is difficult to establish limits to our technological domination of nature. We have trouble distinguishing between what is possible and what is ethical. Is the human person something malleable according to our subjective values or is there a natural excellence that fulfills what it means to be human? If we no longer understand nature to be natural then it is difficult to recognize any ethical assertion as rooted in more than mere subjective and interpersonal values.

Moral relativism is problematic today because human values have been relegated to the subjective world of culture, not rooted in an integral way in reality as a whole. If the Cartesian divide between the objective, mechanical world of nature and the subjective world of human experience is not challenged, it becomes difficult not to fall into ethical tribalism where human values are fundamentally collective opinions of a particular community. Fortunately, it is possible to bring back a more complete, expansive, and integral understanding of human reason. Heights students encounter nature in our wooded valley and study it through our natural history program. Students excel in our science and computer programming classes without being taught that these disciplines are the new paradigm encompassing all of reality. Upper school students learn another scientific approach to reality through our Philosophy sequence, which consists of Logic (freshmen), Natural Philosophy (sophomores), Metaphysics (juniors), and History of Western Thought (seniors). From the perspective of integral human reason, it is no less true to say that it was unjust for the Nazis to persecute the Jews than it is to state that the Empire State building is twelve hundred and fifty feet tall.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.