I teach in Spain, and Spain is currently in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Being ‘impartial’ is tricky in the calmest of times, but in tumultuous times like these it’s a minefield. This is especially so for those of us who teach subjects that are sodden with passion and blood of freedoms lost and regained.
A rule-of-thumb one is often given is that one should ‘stick to the facts and keep one’s opinions to oneself’. Here, I would like to put forward some arguments as to why this is a fairly confused and thus, not very useful dichotomy. The dichotomy is thousands of years old, stemming at least as far back as Plato’s ‘divided line’. However, whilst I believe that Plato’s distinction was a profound and important one, it has been mangled and distorted by time, and we are left with only the vaguest ‘shadow’of his idea.
Firstly, I will outline a key confusion with the term ‘fact’; secondly, I shall outline the many confusions with what often fall under the term ‘opinion’.
‘Fact’ is often confused with a ‘certainty’ but also ‘a scientific conclusion/description’. The two are, in a very important sense, mutually exclusive.
- ‘But that’s a fact’ is often taken to mean something synonymous with ‘you cannot deny that it is true’, or ‘it is certain that this is the case’. Such an exclusion of doubt is quite at odds with the nature of a ‘scientific fact’. Popper argued that what demarcated a scientific statement from a pseudo-scientific one was the concept of falsifiability – i.e. that it could in principle, and in practice be disproven.
- Equally problematic is that ‘fact’ is often confused with ‘knowledge’. Most definitions of knowledge require some form of justification – i.e. a reason for believing something to be the case.
- In many cases, we use the phrase ‘I know…’ when there is doubt and we are emphasising the level of certainty with which we hold something to be true. The confusion here is that this presupposes the possibility of doubt. If there was no possibility of doubt, one is unlikely to use the phrase ‘I know…’ except in frustration or as a joke. Consider the context in which it would make sense to say ‘I know that I am in pain’.
- If there were no criterion by which the truth or falsehood or correct or incorrect use of a statement might be judged then it will be the case that whatever seems right to me, is right. Which means that we cannot talk about ‘right’ in such a case.
Conclusion 1: A more useful dichotomy would be between statements for which we have a criterion/justification/means of falsifiability/means of measurement and those for which we don’t. Those that do have a criterion are, by definition, defeasible. They must, in principle and in practice be open to attack, objection, and revision (though not yet defeated). Sentences that are not defeasible, are not defendable either. If they cannot be wrong, then neither can they be right.
‘Opinion’ is often used to describe a whole host of different kinds of statements, which are often justifiably used in the classroom:
- ‘unsubstantiated statements’. If someone says a statement that masquerades as a ‘fact’ but can provide no evidence for it, then I can understand the accusation that it is ‘unsubstantiated’. However, there are many statements which are unsubstantiable. Much to the chagrin of Russell and Whitehead, they were unable to prove that 1+1=2. ‘Bachelors are unmarried men’ is a philosopher’s favourite, – it is true by definition; I cannot provide a criterion of truth for it as such. ‘All real mobile phones take up space’ is true, but simply because I cannot conceive of the opposite being true. It would be unreasonable of someone to expect me to produce empirical research to support this point.
- ‘Emotions’. Are a teacher’s expressions of emotion to be reserved for outside of the classroom? This would appear to be a strange prohibition: enthusiasm for one’s subject, sympathy with a child, an expression of horror at a historical event. Of course I can imagine cases where an emotional outburst would be inappropriate, but it is not the fact that they are emotions that makes them so. Therefore, the prohibition must relate to something else.
- ‘Belief’. The use of this term has, in my view, become so mangled that I avoid its use where I can. Etymologically, its roots are cognate with ‘love’. To jettison reference to all one’s ‘beliefs’ in their entirety, would be more than daft.
- ‘Politics’. If all political statements have truly become incompatible with ‘facts’, then the world is in a sticky situation.
- ‘Ethics’. I would posit that roots of this confusion of ethics with ‘opinion’ lie with philosophers. This position, known in philosophy as emotivism has its roots in the work of Hume, who argued that the fundamental driver of moral judgement was sentiment, and that we cannot derive an ought from an is – i.e. no set of facts implies a particular obligation. G. E. Moore expanded this idea into the naturalistic fallacy, claiming that we cannot derive ethical terms (good, bad, ought) from non-ethical terms, such as (pleasure, pain). The clearest version of this emotivist thesis was put forward by A. J. Ayer, who concluded that ethical statements are incapable of being verified by means of empirical observations, and are thus simply statements of emotion. Whilst I might agree with this line of thought in that one cannot say that the following is necessarily true:
- If my desk is, by some definition, messy, then I ought to tidy it up.
I cannot think of a context in which the following would not be true:
- If I ought to tidy up my desk, then my desk is, by some definition, messy.
Thus, I would argue, there is some form of logical connection between an obligation and the external world.
A further case that demonstrates a logical connection between ‘ethics’ and the external world:
- I feel obliged to help a man who has fallen down some stairs and is crying out in pain. It is then pointed out to me that he is taking part in a film, and he is a stuntman, so I no longer feel my obligation. I did not decide whether it makes sense to offer my help or not, something external to me did.
Conclusion 2. A prohibition of statements simply because they are ‘matters of opinion’ is a bit silly. A more useful prohibition (that would take into account many of the relevant problematic statements) would simply be ‘don’t tell lies’. This however, leaves the notion of ‘impartiality’ a little redundant. Perhaps it is, but I am not entirely convinced. Certainly more clarity is required than the opinion/fact distinction offers.
The difficulty we face is this: we are in need of a some means of relating our various conceptual apparatuses – otherwise, we feel entirely at sea. It is as if we are all measuring distances with elastic bands and feeling frustrated that we don’t agree – we have no constant. There is an analogy here with physics: if I am measuring time on a supersonic jet, and you are measuring time static on the ground, our measurements will not be the same. Fortunately, Einstein (and friends) provided us with physical laws and the constancy of the speed of light that relate the two. Before we can better elucidate instructions such as ‘be impartial’, we perhaps need to agree on what this constant might be. I have my suspicions as to what might qualify, but I’ll save those for another time.