Exactly one month ago, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the following claims by CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes went viral:
“…one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts…Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”1
Appropriately, “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year.
But post-truth sentiments didn’t start in 2016. They have influenced how we have thought about questions of religion and morality for decades.
The post-truth generation
“That’s just your opinion.”
“Who are you to say that your opinion is any better than anyone else’s?”
“It’s intolerant to say that you are right and someone else is wrong.”
I hear this every semester, as I engage with undergraduates. And they are not alone. Prominent sociologist, Christian Smith, has found that most emerging adults “view morality as ultimately a personal, relative affair: morally right and wrong beliefs depend entirely on the specifics of the case and the ‘opinions’ of the people involved.”2
Don’t get me wrong: there is much to admire in the “post-truth” movement. No doubt we do see the world through the lens of our many biases and prejudices. No doubt it is important to value many of the diverse cultures, societies, and ways of life we find in the world today. No doubt we should strive towards peaceful reconciliation between groups which have long opposed each other. But do we have to abandon objective truth as we aim for understanding across difference, and for humility in our beliefs?
In praise of facts
Scottie Nell Hughes may have given up on facts, but we should not. There is a reality apart from us – filled with trees, birds, oceans, and mountains – which is not dependent on what we think about it. It is not socially constructed. 2+2=4. The Earth is round, not flat. Water is H2O. These statements are objectively true. They are not true relative to my opinion, or to the opinion of my online community, or to what our society happens to believe. They are simply true, period. But what about the more contested questions of truth?
Are philosophers post-truth?
Many people outside of the academic world have the impression that philosophers like myself have given up on the objective outlook. We are accused of accepting “relativism,” “postmodernism,” “constructivism,” or some other fancy label. But is this true?
In 2009, a massive survey of philosophy professors and graduate students was conducted with 3,226 respondents. Only 6.2% “accepted or leaned towards” anything like a post-truth position about human knowledge. Only 13.9% accepted or leaned towards ideas about truth which make it dependent on human opinion.
Most strikingly, perhaps, more than half of the philosophers surveyed accepted or leaned towards an objective view of morality: e.g. that torturing an innocent child purely for amusement, or judging someone incompetent on the basis of their race, is flat out wrong.
Is morality objective?
Between 1942 and 1944, as the Second World War ravaged Europe, Oxford professor C. S. Lewis developed what became one of the most influential books of the twentieth century; it is also a book that was personally quite important in my own life: Mere Christianity. Lewis began by making the case that there is an objective right and wrong governing all human beings. At a time when the democratically elected Nazi regime was slaughtering millions on the basis of race, the need for an objective morality was keenly felt. Having argued for objective morality, Lewis went on to claim that this morality was put into place by God.
Given the mindset of many students today, Lewis’s focus was in the right place – making the case for an objective morality. For today’s philosophers, however, his focus should have been the exact reverse. With some notable exceptions, we philosophers typically don’t need much convincing that morality is objective. What we do need to be convinced about is the appeal to a divine lawgiver. A number of leading moral philosophers (e.g. Derek Parfit, Russ Shafer-Landau, Terence Cuneo, and David Enoch) claim that an objective morality can just exist on its own. There just are objective truths about how we are supposed to behave.
Now I believe in an objective morality too. But I think to myself – isn’t it rather strange that morality would exist like that? Isn’t it rather strange that there is a moral code, with implications for everything from killing to torturing to keeping promises, that just exists somehow, on its own? And do we not need a firmer basis than this when – as in 1940s Germany, or 2016 Aleppo – the fundamental tenets of morality are under siege?
Moral laws vs. scientific laws?
You might say that a self-existing objective morality is no stranger than self-existing laws of physics. A law like E=MC2 is also a truth of the universe, and one that is objective and independent of human beings. You won’t find many “post-truth physicists” who say there are no facts about the laws of nature! So if scientists are comfortable with saying that the laws of physics can exist on their own without a creator, why shouldn’t we be comfortable with the laws of morality existing on their own too?
There is an extent to which the analogy holds, and it is interesting to note that historically many scientists thought that the laws of nature were not self-existent but rather dependent on a divine Creator. But there is an important disanalogy: we break moral laws all the time when we don’t keep a promise, we tell a lie, or we ignore someone’s suffering. The laws of physics don’t work that way.
So both the laws of physics and the laws of morality look like they are objective, but in an importantly different way. And there is still a lively discussion to be had here about whether there is a divine lawmaker behind either of these laws.
2017 reality check?
Many of us were disturbed by the post-truth approach to politics in 2016. We longed for a greater regard for facts and have seen the cracks that open up when we abandon objective truth – however contested that truth might be. But if you find yourself in the post-truth crowd when it comes to religion and morality, saying things like “it’s all a matter of opinion” or “who are you to tell me what is right or wrong,” I would encourage you to recognize the connective tissue and to check out what philosophers are up to these days. We have not given up on facts. Our search for truth is very much alive. Perhaps 2017 can be our year for a reality check.
Christian Miller is a Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and a 2016-17 Veritas Riff Fellow.
- Click here to listen to the original clip.
- Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.51.