Friday, January 27, 2012

“Moral neutrality just isn’t going to cut it anymore”

The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option.  You can’t fight something with nothing.  Because if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.
—David Cameron

In “Lost in Transition: I”, the first of a three-part review of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith et al., developmental psychologist Thomas Lickona barely has room to give us an overview of the book’s segments. And yet the facts he pulls out of Smith’s ongoing longitudinal study gives one very little hope that the moral and spiritual malaise corroding our society from within will start reversing within the next 25 years.

Nearly three-quarters of Smith’s sample say they themselves, as individuals, intuitively and automatically know what is right and wrong in any given situation, and they normally try to follow their conscience.  They typically explain their “instinctive knowledge” of what’s right with reasoning that sounds like the traditional natural law notion that there is a moral sense embedded in our human nature.  Said one subject, “I think everybody has a sense of right and wrong unless you are clinically insane or chemically imbalanced.  It’s just kind of innate.  There’s a lot of gray in between, but on the far end of each spectrum you know what’s absolutely wrong and right.”

That’s all well and good … except that these same young people can’t see any tension between this instinctive “natural law” understanding of moral behavior and their non-judgmental individualism/moral relativism. “For about two-thirds of the 18-23-year-olds in Smith’s sample, extreme moral violations such as rape and murder are clearly wrong, but beyond that, ‘many of the truly moral features of life experiences are invisible.’ One interviewee said, ‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.’”

As a result of this diminished capacity for moral reasoning, Smith concludes, emerging adults are more likely to engage in risky behavior, less able to function effectively as thinking citizens, are unable to conceive of happiness except in terms of material possessions, are politically and civically disengaged, and apt to drink more.  And more are dissatisfied with the “serial monogamy” that characterizes sexual interactions; one young woman even said:

I think obviously sex is no longer sacred, and people are just giving it away. ... Men get what they want with women, which generally speaking is physical fulfillment, and women think they’re gonna get what they want, which is commitment.  And people just go from one person to the next.

In other words, the trend towards cohabitation and single parenthood creating, in the words of Kay Hymowitz, “a nation of separate and unequal families” in a virtual caste system, shows no signs of stopping soon.

In this context, the speech UK prime minister David Cameron gave shortly before Christmas, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, carries added significance.  To quote just a section:

… [Those] who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others … fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality … or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code.  Let’s be clear.  Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality.  There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code.  And there are atheists and agnostics who do.  But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
And whether inspired by faith or not — that direction, that moral code, matters.  Whether you look at the riots last summer … the financial crash and the expenses scandal … or the on-going terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world … one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore.  Shying away from speaking the truth about behaviour, about morality … has actually helped to cause some of the social problems that lie at the heart of the lawlessness we saw with the riots.

It should be obvious by now that the entire appeal of moral individualism is its readiness to serve self-indulgence and hedonism; it’s not so much that I can’t judge you than it is that you can’t tell me what to do and what not to do (“You’re not the boss of me!”).  But it should be equally obvious that it’s destructive to social institutions and social cohesion, since it deliberately frustrates the sharing of a common moral code in the name of “freedom” and “tolerance”.

Let’s take as our example the issue of trust.  “I’m not going to tell other people not to cheat,” one person in Smith’s sample said, “even though it’s something I wouldn’t do.”  But too many aspects of community life — especially commerce — depend on the perception of fair dealing, that both sides of a transaction are being transparent and above-board in their dealings.  When trust fails, regulation is a poor substitute.  Therefore, it’s not enough that I don’t cheat: you must not cheat, either.  There’s no room for a helpless non-judgmentalism here; cheaters don’t deserve to prosper by their dishonesty.

As a society, we can no longer afford this ridiculously reductionist idea that what happens in “private” has no potential to affect anyone else, that “freedom” means “I can do whatever the hell I want, and screw you if you don’t like it!”  Rather, as Bl. John Paul said in his homily at Camden Yards on his 1995 apostolic visit, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

“True freedom is not advanced in the permissive society, which confuses freedom with license to do anything whatever and which in the name of freedom proclaims a kind of general amorality.  It is a caricature of freedom to claim that people are free to organize their lives with no reference to moral values, and to say that society does not have to ensure the protection and advancement of ethical values. Such an attitude is destructive of freedom and peace.”