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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ethics and morals in America

My friend Suzanne posted David Brooks' latest column from the NY Times on FB.  Here's some excerpts:

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America's youth.  Smith and company asked about the young people's moral lives, and the results are depressing.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, "Lost in Transition," you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don't have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn't answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

''Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked," Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn't enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. "I don't really deal with right and wrong that often," is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. "It's personal," the respondents typically said. "It's up to the individual. Who am I to say?"

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: "I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel."

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, "I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn't speak on behalf of anyone else as to what's right and wrong."

It's interesting, and I get his point about the prevalance of moral relativism.  Of course I don't necessarily think that moral absolutism is preferable - after all, it's responsible for witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition, and centuries of human misery, and the subjugation of women, minorities, the diabled and diseased. 

What I found myself thinking about was the talk I heard Peter Beinart give (discussed on 2/25/11), and his wonderful 2010 essay about current American Judaism failing to connect with young people, who consider social justice more important than other values.  Which is noticeably not reflected in the Notre Dame research, but I think that comes from how the survey was conducted. 

I also think that the values communicated by the young people in the Notre Dame survey reflects a lack of religious affiliation, which the census shows is growning every year in America.  Churches and synagogues are the source of much of this "moral" language, and without exposure to it there, many young people don't get it.  No one talks about morality outside of religious contexts, and the American education system certainly doesn't include much discussion of ethics.  You're not going to get any exposure to ethics unless you take a college course in it.  Which is a shame. 

But it comes down to parents, ultimately.  You have to talk about these things with your kids, or they're not going to get any exposure to this type of thinking.



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