September 20, 2011 12:00 A.M.
Why Young Americans Can’t Think Morally
Moral standards have been replaced by feelings.
Last week, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column on an academic study concerning the nearly complete lack of a moral vocabulary among most American young people. Here are excerpts from Brooks’s summary of the study of Americans aged 18 to 23. It was led by “the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith”:
● “Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.”
● “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.”
● “Moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner.”
● “The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste.”
● “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.”
● “Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.” (Emphases mine.)
Ever since I attended college I have been convinced that “studies” either confirm what common sense suggests or they are mistaken. I realized this when I was presented study after study showing that boys and girls were not inherently different from one another, and they acted differently only because of sexist upbringings.
This latest study cited by David Brooks confirms what conservatives have known for a generation: Moral standards have been replaced by feelings. Of course, those on the left only believe this when an “eminent sociologist” is cited by a writer at a major liberal newspaper.
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.
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.
Forty years ago, I began writing and lecturing about this problem. It was then that I began asking students if they would save their dog or a stranger first if both were drowning. The majority always voted against the stranger — because, they explained, they loved their dog and they didn’t love the stranger.
They followed their feelings.
Without God and Judeo-Christian religions, what else is there?
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website, dennisprager.com
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