As I write this article, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is giving some young cyberpunks a much-needed lesson in moral facts.
Here’s the story: Last week, Schilling’s daughter Gabrielle was accepted by Salve Regina University on a baseball scholarship. (According to Wikipedia, Schilling is a “born-again Christian”.) As proud daddies want to do in the twenty-first century, Schilling tweeted his joy to his followers.
Being social-media savvy, Schilling anticipated some ragging among the congratulations. (When you’re a celebrity, you need to expect and be prepared for trolls among your followers.) However, the usual amateur heckling and expected offers to date Gabby turned ugly, as Schilling described “tweets with the [words] rape, bloody underwear and pretty much every other vulgar and defiling word you could likely fathom began to follow. … Worse yet? No less than 7 of the clowns who sent vile or worse tweets are athletes playing college sports.”
“If I was a deranged protective dad,” Schilling writes, “I could have been face to face with any of these people in less than 4 hours. I know every one of their names, their parents, where they go to school, what they do, what team they are on, their positions, stats, all of it. I had to do almost nothing to get ANY of that information because it is all public.” Emails, tweets, and texts were sent; athletes were suspended, and a college DJ dismissed. Other repercussions to follow; Schilling has also enlisted readers willing to help in the persecution.
Moral Fact #1: In the real world, actions have consequences.
Moral Fact #2: Don’t threaten Daddy’s little girl … not even in jest.
I find this especially interesting and timely because, just a day or so earlier, I read philosopher Justin P. McBrayer’s post in the New York Times’ Opinionator blog, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”.
From Prof. McBrayer’s perspective, relativist philosophers aren’t much to blame. For one, “such creatures are rare;” for another, “if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching.” Rather, at least part of the reason for this problem is that our kids are being taught defective definitions of fact and opinion:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
It’s very handy if you can test or prove a fact; however, neither testing nor proof is essential to factness. For example, that Neptune is a planet in our solar system was a fact a billion years before any human had grounds to suspect its existence, let alone prove it exists by astronomical calculations. For another example, that “a line is the shortest distance between two points” is essential to plane geometry despite the fact that it neither needs nor admits of proof. Similarly, the principle of non-contradiction (“a thing cannot both be and not-be at the same time and in the same manner”) has to be assumed because there are no other, more fundamental laws from which it can be proven. An assertion can be a fact at one time, and not a fact later; a fact that’s proven today may be disproven tomorrow; a universal rule can be reduced to a special case, like Newton’s laws of gravity.
Likewise, opinion is often presented as if opinions and facts were mutually exclusive. Yet, this opposition is a false precision. To say the earth rotates in such a fashion that, at most latitudes, the sun appears to “rise” from what we call the eastern horizon, and “set” in the western horizon, on a fairly regular schedule is a fact despite my thinking that it does so. I certainly believe that elephants exist, and am immoderately pleased that they’ve been adequately demonstrated to exist. If I feel happy, then by jingo I am happy; I need no psychiatrist, psychologist, or biologist to take a thousand esoteric measurements before I can consider it a fact, and neither should you.
Certainly not every opinion is based upon fact; some opinions don’t even have a passing acquaintance with fact. But it’s not wise to write off opinion as if all opinions were irrelevant to the rest of humanity because of appearing idiosyncratic. As a writer, my opinion that Joe Schmuckatelli is guilty of larceny can be discarded; were I a juror in his trial, though, my conviction could lead to his conviction. My vote counts in elections even if my choices are based upon mistakes, misapprehensions, and mishegoss. The fallacy-riddled opinion of one Supreme Court justice overrides the law of the land when joined in by at least four of his/her benchmates. People who say, “Other people’s opinions of you don’t matter,” have never had to sit through a performance review or make a living on tips.
To the postmodern mind, morality can’t have “facts” because morality can’t be tested or measured. And yet, certain acts are still “obviously” right and wrong. Many young people will argue passionately for LGBT rights on the basis of “equality”; however, if you told them that they were upholding human equality as a moral fact, they would deny it without any sense of hypocrisy or sign of cognitive dissonance. Morality, it seems, is something only “religion” is concerned with, and only to the detriment of individual liberty.
The point is, as Prof. McBrayer attempts to illustrate, our children don’t believe in moral facts because their teachers, their parents, and their surrounding culture all have confused and contradictory ideas concerning the meanings of fact, opinion and morality. Furthermore, the only discipline that can clarify their relationships to each other — philosophy — is itself under a cloud. The public perception of philosophy is that it’s “a bunch of people’s subjective opinions”, and that science is either replacing it or has already replaced it. While this sorely misrepresents the goals of the empirical sciences, as well as their relationship to philosophy, it’s also the favored view of many scientists … which makes it that much more dangerous and self-destructive a fallacy to hold.
By teaching that there are no moral facts, we do our children and ourselves a disservice. If there are no moral facts, then both rape and women’s rights are merely opinions with no claim to fact, and therefore, no claim to either sanction or enforcement. If there are no moral facts, human justice is not just error-prone but impossible, a contradiction in terms: law is merely the formalized caprice of the rulers inflicted on the ruled; and the state, as St. Augustine of Hippo said, is nothing but “a great band of robbers” (City of God IV:4).
Whatever we may say, our lives and laws are testimony to moral facts. In the real world, we suffer consequences when we stumble against the moral facts of our age. In the real world, we assert moral facts constantly; we should at least have the clarity of sight and honesty of intellect to call them by their rightful names.
In the real world, the chuckleheads who posted the ugly tweets to Curt Schilling could have met much worse fates. That our children are to be protected is the most primal moral fact of all.