Feels Like Ethics: Can Young People Do the Right Thing?

Chuck Colson

Feels Like Ethics: Can Young People Do the Right Thing?

Imagine a country where people had never heard of the germ theory of disease. They bathe and wash their hands, not because it was sanitary but because they like the way it makes them feel.

You might think, “It could be worse, they could be slobs,” but you wouldn’t want them as neighbors, because they really don’t understand the difference between health and sickness.

Substitute “right and wrong” for “health and sickness,” and you are pretty much describing most American young people.

This was the subject of a recent editorial by David Brooks of the New York Times, based on the work of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith.

Smith is the indispensible guide to the beliefs and thinking of American young people. A few summers ago, he and his colleagues interviewed 230 young people across the United States. They asked them questions designed to get a sense of their moral lives.

The results, summarized in Smith’s book, Lost in Transition, are, in Brooks’ words, “disheartening.” The problem isn’t how these kids behave: They aren’t noticeably better or worse than their predecessors.

The problem lies in their moral reasoning, or more precisely, their lack of such reasoning. When asked about the “moral dilemmas and the meaning of life,” their “rambling” replies showed “they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary” to even engage in moral reflection.

When asked to cite a specific moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds either couldn’t cite one or cited a situation that had no moral consequence, such as “whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter.”

As Smith put it, “Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked.” As one young person put it, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.”

You see, for these 18-to-23-year-olds, right and wrong is judged by how a particular action made them feel. As one put it, “I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

This and a healthy fear of going to prison might keep these young people from committing armed robbery or murder, but it would be ridiculous to expect much more. They are unprepared for those times when doing the right thing requires ignoring how you “internally feel” and judging your actions by an external standard. Conscience is not feelings.

I’m not as confident as Brooks that they will become more reflective as they get older: Reflection requires that you have principles and ideals on which to base your reflections.

That is precisely what these young people lack and it’s hard to imagine where they are going to get them. Popular culture, which pervades their every waking moment? Please! Similarly, their schools have already failed them, and, in any case, they are beyond school age.

They are in need of remedial moral instruction. This is why the ethics series Robbie George and I collaborated on at Princeton, “Doing the Right Thing,” is so important: It’s an attempt to make up for what they and countless Americans of all ages lack: a basis for behaving morally even when no one is looking.

Now just telling ourselves "it could be worse, they could holding up a liquor store” is not how you build a healthy society.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication date: September 15, 2011