Thursday, March 15, 2012

Young Nihilists

Thomas Kidd at Patheos reviews a book by sociologist Christian Smith that should be of interest to every parent and future parent. Kidd writes:
Endless consumer choices, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and an increasing lack of taboos in sexuality, all make it critical that emerging adults have a moral framework for making wholesome choices. But Smith shows that this foundational framework is exactly what the majority of his interviewees do not have. Sixty percent of them said that morality was in the eye of the beholder, and about half subscribed, as best they understood it, to the concept of moral relativism.

When pushed, most would concede that some actions, like rape and murder, were wrong almost regardless of circumstances. Some were not even prepared to concede such absolutes, however. One interviewee said he did not know if you were ever obligated to help a person in need: "I don't ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road," he said; "maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try to pull them out, but, no, not really." One in three had no idea what made something right or wrong. Many of those interviewed simply could not understand questions about their sources of morality, no matter how the interviewer rephrased them.

Interviewees displayed distressingly high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as high-risk sexual behavior. About half of those studied had engaged in binge drinking within the past two weeks. Almost three quarters of the non-married emerging adults had experienced sexual intercourse a number of times with a variety of partners, typically beginning around age 16. Especially for women, this pattern of reckless sexuality has fostered deep regrets, insecurity, and trauma from abortions or sexually-transmitted diseases. Other emerging adults, especially some men, seem to sense no regrets whatsoever about their amorous escapades.
Smith's research is distressing but not surprising. Generation Xers have been variously described as morally adrift, nihilistic, lost in a sea of post-modern subjectivism, and so on, but why are they? When people have no categories for making moral judgments other than their own feelings, moral judgments quickly come to be seen as fluid, groundless, and arbitrary. It's an inevitable denouement in a culture that has cut itself free of the moorings of religion which has traditionally provided the only non-arbitrary, objective ground for moral standards and duties.

Check out the rest of Kidd's review at the link.