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. Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.Dennis Prager places his finger on the reason for the anomie Brooks describes among the young:
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.”
Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.
What is disconcerting about Brooks’s piece is that nowhere in what is an important column does he mention the reason for this disturbing trend: namely, secularism. The intellectual class and the Left still believe that secularism is an unalloyed blessing. They are wrong. Secularism is good for government. But it is terrible for society (though still preferable to bad religion) and for the individual.Prager's right. In a secular society there's no moral authority higher than one's own feelings which means that, since everyone's feelings are different, what I ought to do is whatever I feel like doing and can get away with. No one can say that I'm morally wrong if I choose to be selfish or cruel.
One key reason is what secularism does to moral standards. If moral standards are not rooted in God, they do not objectively exist. Good and evil are no more real than “yummy” and “yucky.” They are simply a matter of personal preference. One of the foremost liberal philosophers, Richard Rorty, an atheist, acknowledged that for the secular liberal, “There is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”
With the death of Judeo-Christian God-based standards, people have simply substituted feelings for those standards. Millions of American young people have been raised by parents and schools with “How do you feel about it?” as the only guide to what they ought to do. The heart has replaced God and the Bible as a moral guide.
And now, as Brooks points out, we see the results. A vast number of American young people do not even ask whether an action is right or wrong. The question would strike them as foreign. Why? Because the question suggests that there is a right and wrong outside of themselves. And just as there is no God higher than them, there is no morality higher than them, either.
Thus, after a dozen or so jihadis flew planes into the World Trade Towers on 9/11 college profs in some major universities found that many of their students were reluctant to condemn the act. These students, weaned on moral relativism and subjectivism, simply lacked the moral resources to say that it was wrong to murder thousands of people.
Our secularized young are deeply confused and morally adrift. This confusion was illustrated by students in a class at Yale who had been hesitant to condemn the 9/11 attack, but who, when asked by their prof whether it would be wrong to wantonly kill a thousand whales or buffalo, agreed almost unanimously that it would be.
I take solace in the thought that every older generation despairs of the young.