right and true are deeply connected

Beliefs about “is” and “ought” are so deeply interrelated that it is often better to think of truth and rightness as two dimensions of the same thought than as separable concepts.* That means that it is almost always important to analyze whether a moral belief you hold is true (as opposed to false or uncertain) and also whether any factual claim you make is good (as opposed to bad or unethical).

Consider these examples:

1. “It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race.” That sounds like a pure value-judgment. It may be an excellent or even an obligatory value judgment, but it doesn’t sound like a truth, like “2 plus 3 equal 5,” or “Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”

However, someone who believes this statement and takes it seriously almost certainly holds a set of other beliefs that are factual. For instance: There has been, and continues to be, a lot of discrimination on the basis of race. Racial discrimination has caused (and seems likely to continue to cause) suffering, injustice, and pain. And people of different races are not actually different in ways that should matter. These statements are true and based on information.

So now the claim is starting to look very factual again. It’s starting to sound like a testable hypothesis that isn’t a matter of moral judgment. But the stance against racial discrimination is also inextricably moral, at several levels.

First, it isn’t a logical or scientific fact that it it wrong to cause suffering, injustice, or pain. when animals cause pain, we don’t blame them morally. Implicit in the idea that we should not discriminate is some account of how we should behave toward other human beings.

Second, how do we know that racial discrimination has been common? People have experienced it personally and have taken the trouble to share their own experiences with others who have chosen to listen to them; or they have collected evidence of other people’s suffering from libraries and archives. In other words, people have accumulated and shared an understanding of racial oppression in the United States. That process takes intentional effort. Whether you are a professional historian who uncovers original documents about slavery or a parent who shares family memories with your toddlers, you are creating knowledge because of your moral commitments.

So now the statement “It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race” is again beginning to seem highly moral and not factual at all. It is built on moral concepts like “injustice,” and an understanding of our history and present circumstances that we have created because of our values. But again, we cannot ignore the factual element. Yes, people create an understanding of history. But they cannot make just anything up. Racial discrimination has been all too real. That is why it appears in books of history and not just in fiction. We make the books of history, but it is “history” because it is real.

To add another layer: race itself is not a scientific concept. No biologist from another planet would classify human beings into races. But race is a social construct of enormous power. As such, it has really existed, and its existence has mostly been bad, although certainly some have made good of it through their effort and their art.

In short, a statement against racism, like very many other statements, combines evaluations and facts in ways that are impossible fully to disentangle. And so one question that you can ask about a statement like this is: “Is it true?”

2. Every child has a right to a good education. The invocation of a right in this sentence makes it a moral claim. Rights cannot be detected or vindicated by scientific methods. To say that someone has a right is to assert what is just, fair, or good.

At the same time, education is something that we observe and experience. Although education occurs in many settings (beginning with the home), usually a right to education is interpreted as a right to free or affordable schooling of a certain quality. Schools and colleges were founded at particular points in human history and have evolved and diversified until they reflect a range of purposes, as well as a wide range of quality. It only makes sense to favor a right to education (translated as a right to a certain quality and extent of schooling) if one observes that schools are, or could be, good for children.

That is partly an empirical claim, informed by evidence about their actual impact. But it is not a purely empirical assertion, because what is good for children is a moral question. (Should children become free and autonomous? Obedient and productive? Smart? Happy?)

Moral judgment enters the analysis in another way as well. To say, “Every child has a right to a good education” does not imply that a satisfactory education is what we actually offer in schools today. We can develop a vision of better schools in the future. But that vision should be vivid and detailed, not just a rote invocation of a better time. And it should be a plausible vision, given what we know (or think we know) about how human beings learn, about how institutions function, about what laws can achieve, and about what money can buy.

Once again, the factual and the moral interpenetrate deeply, so that teasing one strand from the other does not seem productive, even if it were possible.

3. “A good and omnipotent God exists”: This is a claim about how the universe actually is. It is phrased so that it is literally true or false, just like the claim that 2 plus 3 equals five or the earth is round. But God is different. God could exist and yet be completely immune from being empirically proven by living human beings during the regular course of history. (Only souls after death or at the end of time would have direct empirical evidence of God.)

I think people are entitled to believe in God if that genuinely feels true to them. I would not advocate deleting that belief from one’s set of ideas because it isn’t a scientific hypotheses, subject to being tested. But you can ask whether your own religious beliefs feel secure and sincere. The question is whether you really believe in God. That is a different question from whether you wish that God exists or whether you belong to a community that traditionally believes in God. Nothing is true just because it would be better if it were true or just because people have believed it.

Again, this is not an argument against the existence of God. It is merely a reminder that one is responsible for reflecting on the truth of one’s religious beliefs, quite apart from their consequences. God belongs in your store of beliefs if subjective experience or reason leads you to believe that there is a God. If not, perhaps that idea should go.

4. “Everything happens for a good reason.” That statement could be true if God or Providence or some other supernatural force makes everything come out well, either on earth or in heaven. In other words, this statement could be true if it is connected to a religious claim that is true. But the statement seems flatly false if it is not sustained in that way. UNICEF estimates that 21 children under the age of five die every minute because of preventable causes, most of which could be removed with modest amounts of money. If those children die for a good reason, I fail to see it. To believe that everything happens for the best without citing a religious justification seems to me a classic example of bad faith. It is an error, a falsehood, motivated by the hope of evading upsetting thoughts. It is an example of the kind of belief that we should delete as we look for falsehoods in our own beliefs (unless, again, you choose to retain it because of a religious belief that truly justifies it).

*Cf. Bernard Williams on “thick” moral concepts in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 140-1.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.