The proper place of bullshit, or re: “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”

(A reaction to this piece published in the New York Times.)


I’m tempted to say something like “You can’t be both religious and a good moral philosopher.” I’m not so sure that’s true, but it sure as hell seems to get in the way. When one begins with a set conclusion–i.e., “My religious beliefs”–and then uses philosophy as a way to justify those “truths” rather than allowing philosophy to lead the way wherever it will… well, you’re going to wind up going to strange places. For example, you’re going to wind up arguing for universal moral objectivity because that’s what your holy book requires, like Justin McBrayer does in the above piece, despite the whole idea of objective morality being obvious bullshit.

When I call human value judgments “bullshit” I mean it in the fondest way. There’s a lot of great bullshit in the world that makes life worth living. All human culture, art, philosophy, morality, ethics; our concepts of rights, freedom, fairness and civility; the importance we place on truth, scientific honesty, authenticity–it’s all bullshit. We are not now, nor will we ever be, sure we’re right about anything, and even if we were, there’s no objective reason to believe there’s value in not being wrong. Any value we place on anything–even our lives, even the “value” of something having value to us–exists in our heads, it’s subjective, it’s bullshit. But so long as one is comfortable living as an inescapably subjective human being there’s nothing wrong with that. Bullshit makes the flowers grow, and that’s beautiful.

If children are being taught that all values are subjective, that even the base concepts underlying our civilization are ultimately just some bullshit someone made up and others decided to take seriously for reasons… well, good, because that is indeed the case. There is no right or wrong, no good or evil; these are subjective ideas passed down through the generations, in a word: bullshit. Some of that bullshit is extremely useful, in my completely subjective opinion. I’m quite fond of the idea of human rights, for example, and that’s the kind of bullshit I’m happy to continue laying down for future generations. But there’s no point pretending it’s not bullshit. The concept of human rights isn’t going to survive because we tell kids it was handed down by some weirdo in the clouds or because it has some imaginary presence in the physical Universe. (Tell me, what’s the force-carrier for the First Amendment? Does the right to bear arms manifest as a wave or a particle?) I’d like to think the best of our bullshit will survive because it’s useful, because it makes people’s lives better.

At the end of the day does the Universe as a whole lose sleep over rape, murder, torture and so on? Nah. The Universe is a big place and shit happens; none of it really matters on a cosmic scale. Do I, as a human, prefer those sorts of things don’t happen? Of course. But I’m not going to pretend that’s anything but a subjective preference on my own part. I love the hell out of my species, but spoiler alert folks, we’re pretty insignificant. As the 21st century progresses we seem to be getting to a choke point where more and more people will have to be comfortable with the fact (oh hey, that word) that there is no is, that we’re are all caught up in our subjective perceptions and consequent reality maps, and hopefully we’ll all be able to have senses of humor about how impossible it is to make objective statements about reality and give each other some leeway. Or I guess another option is to shut your eyes and insist that the likes of Aristotle and Confucius were on to something and there really is something objective to all our bullshit… because after wading in bullshit long enough it’s all you can smell.

But if you’re going to take the latter route, please first show me where “Morality” is on the periodic table. In the meantime, let’s teach children to think for themselves, to recognize bullshit when they see it, and to understand that the bullshit of the past can be replaced with more useful, more informed modern bullshit whenever it’s convenient.


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