By Dr. Jeff Mirus | September 26, 2011
On September 13th, David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times calling attention to the near complete lack of moral thinking among American youth (see If It Feels Right…). It seems that in 2008 Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith interviewed 230 young adults between the ages of 18 and 23 concerning their moral principles and ideas, and the majority of them were apparently incapable of conceptualizing moral questions, or of articulating right and wrong according to anything other than “how it feels” for each person.
This is hardly surprising, especially since the process of making “feelings” the source of morality began to enter the mainstream when I was in college in the 1960s. The answers to Smith’s questions remind me very much of my own conversations with rudderless classmates. Those attitudes had already seeped into academia before they seeped into young minds, and they were fairly deeply entrenched throughout the Western world at least by the 1970s. Older readers may recall waiting in vain for a “silent majority” to regain control, but it never happened, and the 18 to 23 year-olds interviewed in 2008 were mostly raised by parents who married in the next decade.
Brooks notes that the results of the study say more about schools, institutions and families than about the interviewees. This is true: Neither parents nor adult-run institutions passed on moral thinking to the next generation for the simple reason that they had no moral thinking to pass on.
Yet there is no cause for panic. As we know from innumerable other sources, young people today tend to be more conservative than their parents, and even the hapless crew interviewed by Christian Smith were not, in general, leading libertine lives. Moreover, the vast majority did recognize murder and rape as immoral, and that is actually not such a bad start. The logical consequences of those two recognitions can carry a person a long way, if he is not yet so steeped in vice as to refuse the journey. Though we may fail to think about it much, the natural law still makes itself known, and conscience still reproves us, within limits, when we break it.
Even in the previous era in which most people accepted religious teaching as the determinant of right and wrong, there was not necessarily a great deal of moral thought. To assert that something is wrong because God or the Bible tells me so is far better, to be sure, than to say something is wrong because it doesn’t feel right to me (but may feel fine to somebody else). But such an answer doesn’t in itself represent any sort of moral analysis. On what basis, or for what reason, does God say it is wrong? And why should we believe what this or that church says, or the Bible, or Christianity in general?
One presumes (and this at least matches my own experience) that parents in 1950s America could not answer such questions. They may have taken the results of such an inquiry for granted, but very few were capable of discussing such matters persuasively with their children. Many parents felt betrayed when colleges and universities, including Catholic colleges and universities, got hold of their kids after 1960 and robbed them of their pro-forma faith and morals. But they also felt (and very largely were) incapable of doing anything about it.
The moral decline of a culture claims many victims, particularly among the young. Clearly there are some things we should never take for granted. But anyone who lives past the age of twelve learns that we do take things for granted all the time, especially moral things, and that when we get burned, it is most often because we’ve taken something for granted that was not as obvious, not as understood, and not as inevitable as we thought. Moral reasoning is not in short supply only among those who were between the ages of 18 and 23 in the year of grace 2008. No, the sad truth is that moral reasoning is always in short supply.
So what are we to say of all this? Even the New York Times, if only through an op-ed columnist, was willing to publish the fact that it is something of a mess. I am not disposed to argue that point, but it is also an opportunity. The current generation of young adults is not the generation which was formed in heady rebellion against old rules that claimed (unbuttressed by significant moral reasoning) to transcend man. Instead, it is a generation which has experienced nothing but the paradoxically conformist vacuum created by the belief that the only transcendent rule is that there are no transcendent rules.
In the midst of such a generation, those of us who can reason morally have a real chance to be heard. Though their elders will try to shout us down, I believe the young, more frequently than we can yet imagine, are ready to learn. Something is better than nothing. Those of us who can reason morally can explain that morality comes not from nothing—not from emptiness, not from despair. It is part of a fuller and a richer life. It comes from being.