Where does the moral anti-realism come from today?

There seems to be a virulent strain of moral anti-realism that is all the rage these days, people unable or unwilling to recognize that there are moral truths about the universes. The New York Times has some intersting observations on the question in their article Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.

What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, 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.

What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

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  • Foxfier

    Of course it’s popular. It’s safe.

    If you stick only to what can be objectively proven by physical evidence– no reasoning required. It’s simple. It’s safe.

    You don’t have to deal with it.


    Sad thing is, I can kind of see where the Common Core thing may have come from– there is a need for people to understand the difference between what they believe and what is true. Unfortunately, most of the examples I’ve seen are silly. It would be much better to just do a class on basic logic, which is what they’re kind of backing around to…..