Intelligent people can disagree on a proper and ethical course of action. I can, for example, imagine a spirited debate about when, whether and how a person with eyesight should offer to help a blind person cross the road.
But when members of a society no longer have the vocabulary to weigh right and wrong, no longer can identify when a decision has moral underpinnings, that society just may be in trouble.
That’s why I was struck today by a David Brooks‘ column in The New York Times. Brooks tells of research led by an eminent Notre Dame sociologist who attempted to probe the moral lives of 230 college-age students, 18 to 23. When the researchers asked open-ended questions about the moral dilemmas these young adults had faced, their subjects struggled with the very concept of what a moral decision might entail.
Writes Brooks: “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.”
As a college professor, I’ve long found, and appreciate the fact, that young adults tend to be more accepting or at least tolerant of behaviors or attitudes in peers that their more rigid elders might frown on. But that’s very different from not knowing how to define or discuss what moral questions these behaviors or attitudes might raise.
Brooks appears to be lamenting the decline of a shared cultural moral framework.
In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines… Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.
I am less concerned with the shift to individualism than I am the lack of a shared vocabulary for the collective of individuals to discern and discuss what they believe and to explain clearly, to themselves and others, why. It is out of such discussion and reflection that our beliefs become shaped, our sense of social purpose defined.