first year college students and moral relativism

Justin McBrayer, a philosophy professor, wrote not long ago in The New York Times, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” McBrayer attributes this situation to the Common Core, which recommends teaching young children a distinction between facts and opinions. Because values aren’t viewed as facts, they get put into the opinion basket. So the same basket that contains “I prefer vanilla ice cream” also contains “genocide is bad.”

I happen to be teaching a whole class of first year undergraduates in a philosophy course, and I asked them whether they shared the relativism attributed to their demographic group by McBrayer. About one third agreed that moral claims are “mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” Roughly the same number disagreed. Many were uncertain. After about an hour’s discussion, it was evident that most students held quite complicated or nuanced views. Everyone’s position sounded different, but I think many would like to hold onto: 1) moral seriousness and the assumption that it makes a big difference what we conclude about moral issues, 2) an ability to decry certain horrible acts as evil, 3) a recognition of ideological diversity, 4) a distinction between moral claims and empirical claims, 5) falliblism and an acknowledgement that context affects, or even determines, everyone’s thought, including our own, and 6) tolerance, which they recognize as a value, not as an absence of values. Those assumptions are in some tension, but it’s possible to pull them together into a complex position.

I don’t want to generalize based on an “n” of 15 people at one college, but if anyone asks me for evidence that Kids Today are amoral relativists–or that they have turned into censorious absolutists–I offer this counter-evidence.

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.

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