Opinion: At the inaugural Let’s Talk Tulsa event, during a discussion about homeschooling, one member of the audience revealed that in a Tulsa County public school, their child was given an assignment to try to pick a side on the question of abortion and/or gay marriage, and argue for it without using morality. At the time, I was quite struck and confounded – how would someone even possibly begin to answer such questions without morality.
Usually, though, when someone says, “let’s not talk about morality” or “let’s not include religion in this” or “let’s leave philosophy out,” what it usually means is quite the opposite. It usually means that they have already given you the morality, religion, or philosophy, but you are not allowed to question it. In this case, since the student is supposed to argue for a particular side, they have to have some basis for their claims. That means that they are being restricted to arguing based on the material status of the one party. Focusing on the material status of the acting party isn’t amoral, it is instead substituting a new morality for an old one.
Now, let’s lay aside the fact that this public school assignment matches basically word-for-word with the talking points of the democratic party (keep your morality to yourself, don’t impose your morality on me, etc.), and lay aside the fact that this lines up exactly with the postmodern view of morality (just without using that term), and pretend for a moment that the school meant something more serious with this assignment. Let’s say that what they were really trying to do was to teach students how to argue a point in a way that is publicly convincing, rather than just based on personal, private understandings. Even so, this is a terrible way to do that.
One of the misconceptions about morality is that it is an entirely private affair. That is, my morals are mine, and have no weight in public decision-making. Therefore, on that basis, the teacher could be asking their student to move away from personal belief and make arguments that are public. This is a false view of morality, however. Many philosophers have pointed out that humans regularly refer to a normalized moral order, independent of the person. Therefore, since the moral order stands outside humanity, it is a public affair, not a private one.
It is true that we may be right or wrong about a certain moral understanding, just as scientists can be right or wrong about certain scientific propositions. Neither of those things change the fact that beneath our strivings for truth, there is a truth down there that is independent of our thinking about it. Morality is just as objective as science, even though discovering moral truths is also sometimes just as difficult as within science.
Teaching that morality is private comes with deep consequences. It teaches that our personal wants and desires are more important than the public good, precisely because there is no external public morality to which we should conform. It also prevents societies from being able to call foul when the governments become wicked, since there is no moral standard to compare them to. It also allows the culturally powerful to set the moral standard from the backdoor, simply because they will disguise their moral agenda without using the term “morality.”
Just as bad as relativizing and privatizing morality, this thinking re-enforces the worst habits common among young people, and calls it virtue. Young people do not need encouragement to think about themselves and how ideas will affect them personally. They do not need to be taught how to disrespect things that are above their knowledge and wisdom. These things are easy and come naturally to everyone. It is easy to find fault with wisdom, precisely because wisdom takes the widest view, and everyone starts from the narrowness of themselves.
Morality, in terms of a handed-down tradition of morals, encompasses the wisdom of generations. Arguing from tradition-based morality is not inherently problematic – it is instead humble, understanding that there are issues that others have faced that we know nothing about. That doesn’t mean it is unquestionable, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be thoughtlessly cast aside because of immediate wants that the morality is getting in the way of.
In fact, one of the best things that morality does is to slow us down. We want things now. We want gratification. We want to feel good. Morality tells us to slow down, and realize that our gratification is not the ultimate good. Getting exactly what we want is not the highest goal. Morality tells us that there are other people which will be affected, probably in ways we haven’t yet thought of.
Now, it is true that a problem with moral claims is that they are only logically authoritative among people who share the same morality. However, that doesn’t mean that we should throw away moral arguments. What it should do is encourage us to instead justify them. If making arguments which are more widely applicable is the goal, then a better way would be to first write a discussion about the subject using morality, and then write a second discussion justifying the moral claims to someone who doesn’t share the same moral beliefs.
While the original assignment would weaken a student’s moral understanding of the world, this way would deepen it. It would require them to seek out understandings from their community to learn why certain morals are the way that they are. It would teach them that one of the purposes of morality is to encode the wisdom of generations in a way that is understandable and followable.
Instead, we just say, “don’t worry about morality – just tell me how it makes you feel.” And people wonder why some of us homeschool.