“That’s just your opinion though. All sorts of people are raised differently and think differently. Who’s to say who’s right? We really can’t know.”
Multiple students in my philosophy class recently said that in a class discussion, and the other students concurred enthusiastically.
Pronouncements like this--often proclaimed with the utmost confidence almost immediately--are de rigueur in class discussions on moral topics--heaven's ta mergatroy it happens...all...the...time. These statements are often made reflexively, as opposed to reflectively, and I usually try to push back and ask some questions when I hear these types of things. I don’t want to live next to someone who, when it comes to moral issues, just throws up their hands and quickly proclaims “eh, who’s to say?” I don’t want to live next to someone that thinks everything in morality just boils down to preference, mere opinion, or custom. I don’t want my daughters to date men who think that way.
Neither do you: folks who think this way are much less likely to be there for you in your hour of need or when the situation requires honor, restraint, courage, or moral resolve. If they actually live out what they are taught, they’ll just shrug and say “well that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” To paraphrase Lewis, when schools mock honor, we shouldn’t be shocked when a traitor ends up living next door.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. Back to the story.
I started out by asking lots of “what do you mean?” and “what led you to that conclusion?” style questions. Just listening and making sure I understood them correctly. Then I started to push, ever so gently, with more questions, like “how confident are you on a scale of 1 to 10?” and “what might cause you to just move 1 down in terms of confidence?” Answers: they were supremely confident in their relativism--9 or 10, and not much would cause them to re-think things.
That’s pretty standard. Most of them have never or rarely been pressed to reflect on their relativism, but I still like to ask those kinds of questions, even if they can’t think of anything that could possibly cause them to change. My hope is that they’ll chew on the questions later and the questions themselves will then thaw the dogmatism a tad.
After this, I challenged them a bit more directly: They all argued that because people differ in their moral views and are raised differently, there is no one right and wrong. So I asked them to justify that move because it doesn't follow. How is it that just because people differ in their views, we can't know who is right?
Also, “if you were to witness a sexual assault committed by someone of a different culture, would that cause you to re-think your position? They are ‘raised differently,’ so according to your own beliefs, wouldn’t that mean you could only say ‘my culture says it’s wrong’ but you couldn’t consistently say it’s just wrong period? That's a pretty tough bullet to bite.”
And: “a consequence of your view is that if George Floyd's death happened in Russia, you couldn't say anything other than ‘I wouldn't do it; I don't like it; our culture says that's bad,’ but you couldn't consistently condemn it outright because those perpetrators were ‘raised differently.’” Like always, trying to thaw the dogmatism.
Every step of the way they really dug in and tried to defend their position ardently, mostly with non-sequiturs.
Then one student said, with a shaky voice and quivering lip, "I don't like it when someone tries to refute me." I had challenged her relativism earlier. She was on the verge of tears and passionately asserted her disdain for people who try to push back and critique.
Never mind that I was challenging very, very gently.
My response was just to mumble something about the need to have a thick skin in this class, and that my questioning was nothing personal. Honestly I kind of fumbled the reply. In retrospect I should have been a bit more insistent, pointing out (diplomatically and gently, yes) her own inconsistencies that she felt free to correct others like myself and other classmates who she disagreed with (especially on gender ooh boy. Her disdain really came out strong when it came to more conservative perspectives on gender. She judged like nobody’s business there!), but she cried foul when it was done to her.
Ah well, so it goes. You know what they say about the best laid plans between mice and men.
This brings up a question: do I push back, or is my job to simply provide students a space to express themselves? Some say, "perhaps you should have just let her talk and not pushed back with questions."
My answer is of course I want a balance--discussions will be more interesting and engaging if students feel like they can speak their minds honestly and not have to perform or walk on eggshells (this tends to be a problem in classrooms where Critical Social Justice ideology reigns, with activist professors), so I want to push back judiciously and not overdo it, and when I choose to go there, do so equitably, professionally, and fairly.
Nevertheless: I still need to do it, even do it often, in situations like the above. To fail to do so would teach all the wrong lessons, make the problem worse, leaving students sorely unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed in life. It harms students, and creates headaches for their future spouses, friends, co-workers, and bosses.
We want to relate to people who can, when challenged, roll with it.
We want them to flourish. Challenging their thinking and pushing back are necessary tools to that end. Not only does it assist them in developing critical thinking skills--it also helps develop general maturity.
So: I'll continue to ask questions, thank you....