One of central questions I raise in every one of my classes deals with the problem of morality. Specifically, I want my students to struggle with the idea that there might or might not be some overarching morality out there. But, of course, most of my students already believe that there is no such thing as an overarching morality to which we can appeal and they bristle at my argument that it’s important for the way in which we make decisions t to think critically about what morality means.
David Brooks describes exactly what I frequently find myself facing in a column from a few weeks ago that detailed some survey work done in 2008 by sociologists from Notre Dame:
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.
I last wrote about this issue a month ago, in response to a piece by Joel Marks over at The Stone that extolled the virtues of being what he called an ex-moralist. But here, quite starkly, is the problem with being an ex-moralist:
“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?”
In the end, when we decide that we either can’t or shouldn’t make moral judgments, then we just shrug our shoulders and conclude that anything is as good as anything else. “Who am I to say?” might well be the defining question of the past twenty years.
But Brooks, in the end, isn’t overly troubled by all of this. He concludes that the young adults who were interviewed will end up learning about morality as they get older, land jobs, get married, and have kids. In his words, “Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them.” Even as someone who thinks morality is important, I can’t figure out why this is a good thing.
And, indeed, Brooks — in referencing a number of political philosophers who, writing back in the 1980s, bemoaned the popular turn toward relativism — ought to know better. If young adults today have no moral sense, then having some sort of morality foisted upon them by the culture actually seems a good deal worse than simply not caring about morality, as it opens the door for the sort of tyranny of the majority over thought about which Alexis de Tocqueville and, more recently, Allan Bloom warned us. Brooks cites Bloom here and then skips happily over the consequences that Bloom foresaw when he condemned the empty-headed relativism being lauded as the American cardinal virtue.
If we give up on the idea of using our reason to make judgments about right and wrong, we can’t be very far off from just accepting the judgments of others unthinkingly. The consequences of this method of decision-making for a democratic society ought to be pretty clear by now.