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Researchers: It’s not that young people today are immoral – it’s that they can’t recognize moral questions at all

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They lack the thinking skills taught to earlier generations.

In “If It Feels Right … “ (New York Times, September 12, 2011), David Brooks complains,

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

Odd, coming from the inventor of the evolutionary psychology novel. So why trust his judgement? Here’s what his source reports,

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.

With what outcome?

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.

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?”


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.”

Some hope they’ll mature, but historical experience is, in general, that people so rudderless do not mature. Lucky if they merely morph into a crowd; too often, that crowd is a mob that later forsakes chaos for order imposed by a dangerous fanatic adored by masses. Now  that’s the experience of a lifetime, to be sure.

Which reminds us: If Dawkins talks the way he just did on TV and Paxman joins in, prompting a complaint to the BBC, how is he supposed to be a good influence on children? Why should anyone buy or recommend his children’s book?

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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

I think you are pointing to a related reason why "denominational" churches have been declining in their membership (as aggregate) in the U.S. (arguably since the 1850's) while the non denominational, evangelical, churches have been experiencing a large growth in their membership for nearly as long. The theology practiced by the traditional, denominational churches has been, in large part, usurped by the "moral relativism" that was characteristic of the industrialized world during the Modern era. The historically traditional theological teachings of God as an actual entity, has been replaced by the mode of thinking of God as an ideal and the promulgation of "social works" or performance of charity for charity's sake (empty form). Post-modern America (and I would wager the rest of the world), now must deal with the calibrations effected by such theological and popular philosophical beliefs upon our collective moral compasses. It should therefore be no surprise to the academic community that what "youngsters" consider a critical moral question is different from what they the academics consider to be a critical moral question. After all, in an increasingly large culture of persons that subscribe to varying degrees of moral relativism, what can truly be pointed to as a cornerstone of moral character? One could say the laws enacted by the various legislative bodies. However, since the laws are laid down by elected officials (in most democratic societies), those laws would change with the times, albeit more slowly than popular morality. At best, those laws would be a speed bump to throttle the effects of moral relativism, but as such they represent nothing so absolute as to be a cornerstone. ciphertext
That's very good, William. In Australia volunteers from churches are allowed to go into the primary schools for 20-30 minutes a week to deliver a "Scripture" lesson. In some places that time is guaranteed by law. In others, including where I live, it's up to the school principal and I've seen some very dodgy things done to justify a refusal to let us in. I used to be one of the volunteers but I had to stop because the material we had to use was driving me nuts. Too much of it was mere exhortation to good behaviour. The stories were presented in no particular order. Children too young to understand abstract concepts had to spend weeks on various parables of Christ. And this was stuff apparently produced by Christian people with teaching qualifications! I would have liked to put a decent curriculum together to help children think about, "why god **must** exist, and why morals **must** refer to an objective good" but it's way too big a job for one person. Janice
WJM: I think there is a major, multi-faceted institutional capacity challenge for church, home, school and comunity on this one, rooted in inability to soundly address worldview issues. What do you think of here on (in context), as a starter. G kairosfocus
From my observation, what has occurred is a long history of religious dogma and doctrine being taught that was not founded on instruction in first principles and comparative warrant. It's easier to teach children "god exists" and "this is what is moral" than go the long way around and explain why god **must** exist, and why morals **must** refer to an objective good. As in my personal case, when all one has is the command to believe and the threat of punishment if I do not, hanging on nothing more substantial than "because I (or the Bible) said so", it is right to reject such when presented as nothing more than dogmatic doctrine. Having had no basic education or upbringing that provided Plato or Aristotle or even Lewis, I was unaware of the concept of first principles - I really didn't even understand how to properly use logic, or how to compare the ramifications of different premises. If there is a failure, I put much of the blame squarely on religious institutions that delivered command-and-threat, "because I say so" theism. As the population has generally become better educated and more sophisticated, they rightly reject such a grounding but have had nothing of any substance to replace it with, or even to begin with. So they fall into absurd, nihilisic views. That's when the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and then they raise children that are not even grounded in "because I say so" theology or philosophy. They have no traditional doctrine or philosophical roots to ground their thought and behavior in. These people grow up and become political leaders, scientists and academics, producing an entirely ungrounded population. IMO, the ID movement is incredibly important because it gives people what they are yearning for - the intellectually and emotionally satisfying rational basis for a more complete spiritual worldview that is based on warranted and coherent a prioris, not the "because I say so" dogma of what institutionalized religion has been offering. William J Murray
H'mm: As in, didn't Plato warn about something like this in The Laws, Bk X, 360 BC, 2350 years ago? ___________ >> [[The avant garde philosophers, teachers and artists c. 400 BC] say that the greatest and fairest things are the work of nature and of chance, the lesser of art [[ i.e. techne], which, receiving from nature the greater and primeval creations, moulds and fashions all those lesser works which are generally termed artificial . . . They say that fire and water, and earth and air [[i.e the classical "material" elements of the cosmos], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only . . . . [[T]hese people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.- [[Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT. (Cf. here for Locke's views and sources on a very different base for grounding liberty as opposed to license and resulting anarchistic "every man does what is right in his own eyes" chaos leading to tyranny.)] These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might [[ Evolutionary materialism leads to the promotion of amorality], and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [[Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality "naturally" leads to continual contentions and power struggles; cf. dramatisation here], these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others [[such amoral factions, if they gain power, "naturally" tend towards ruthless tyranny; here, too, Plato hints at the career of Alcibiades], and not in legal subjection to them . . . >> ___________ So, all this does is it proves evo mat being imposed on the education system has the effects it has been known to have since 360 BC. The real problem is why did we allow such an absurdly bankrupt worldview to be inflicted as a censoring a priori on our education systems in the false name of science? Who bewitched us? How? How can we fix the problem? GEM of TKI kairosfocus
Thud, is this a parody of liberal platitudes? If so, well done! You forgot to say 'nuances' though. ash
The NYT article cites no numbers at all and relies totally on anecdotes and buzz words. It's worthless. You know what I think is more likely? Young people see the shades of gray that the author doesn't. There may be no correct answers to moral questions, which are often complex and paradoxical. Brooks just wants to stand on a box and gripe. thud
Yeah well, once you die you're dead forever. Better grab for all the gusto while you can. And why not? If you step on a few toes along the way, oh well. Survival of the fittest and all that. jstanley01

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