In a research study conducted by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, 230 young adults (18 to 23 year olds) from around the United States were asked in-depth questions about moral dilemmas and the differences between right and wrong. David Brooks recently discussed the study in his the New York Times column. With the exception of the most heinous crimes, Brooks reports that “the default position 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?’”
Smith calls this extreme moral individualism. Ethical decisions were seen as relative to individual judgment, which others should not judge. This extended to such behaviors as cheating on tests or on a partner and drunk driving.
For centuries, great religions and philosophers have provided guidance on moral choices, many of which are embedded in legal codes. Whether the ten commandants or the teachings of Plato, ethical bedrocks have been replaced in the minds of many young adults with nonjudgmental relative morality—relative to what feels right to each individual. To the degree this is accurate, the moral cohesive that binds our diverse culture together has been weakened.
What does this say about where we are going as a society? Does it reflect how well we have instilled core values in our children, as parents and teachers? What does this portend for the future and decisions and judgments made by emerging leaders who hold such beliefs? If morality is relative to the individual, how can there be overriding ethical expectations for conducting our lives and our business? Is right and wrong truly dependent on individual judgment? I think not.
Brooks calls the study results depressing. Yet crime and immoral behavior among this demographic is not much different than that of past generations in that age range. So something is sticking. Can moral judgment be distinguished from moral behavior? How much of what’s been revealed in Smith’s study is a reflection of insufficient thought or mushy thinking rather than deeply held beliefs? I don’t know the answer to that question.
I do not think we are devolving into a “Lord of the Flies” society. But I do think now is a good time to ask ourselves, regardless of our age: What do we truly believe about right and wrong? What is moral and ethical? Is morality relative? If you believe so, then how much of it is? What is subject to individual judgment and what is not?
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