Postmodern Morality Among Today?s Young Adults

Oct 8th, 2011 | By | Category: Ethics, Featured Issues

Sociologist Christian Smith recently led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America, all of which focused on the moral lives of today?s young adults.  The results are quite depressing.  Columnist David Brooks summarizes several of the salient findings:

  1. When asked to describe a moral dilemma they faced, two-thirds of the young people either could not answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter of a parking lot.
  2. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong.  But aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking did not enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner.  ?I don?t really deal with right and wrong that often? one interviewee stated.
  3. The default position most cited was 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??
  4. Many were quick to talk about moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation.  As one respondent argued:  ?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.?
  5. Smith and his researchers found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism?of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.  They have concluded that today?s young adults (18-23 years old) ?have not been given the resources?by schools, institutions and families?to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors  than may be degrading.?  America is now characterized by the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.  Brooks writes that ?morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it is thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.?  We are no longer a nation that has a shared religion that defines rules and practices.  We are no longer a culture that structures people?s imaginations and imposes moral disciplines.  The free-floating individual is now the essential moral unit of American culture.  It is difficult to be optimistic or to see this development as a positive.

Conclusion:  Here, then, is the center of postmodernism? the doctrine of the autonomous self living in community.  In postmodernism, the self defines and really creates its own reality.  There are virtually no boundaries for behavior and there are few authority figures that matter anymore.  For example, the 7 May 2000 issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to this concept of autonomy.  Autonomy impacts all aspects of culture ? entertainment, business, law, leisure and religion.  I, the self, define all aspects of reality.  There really is nothing transcendent that defines it for me; I am autonomous.  Such a claim has a haunting ring of familiarity to it, for the book of Judges has as its refrain, ?Every man did what was right in his own eyes.?  When individual autonomy is mixed with America?s deep-seated commitment to rights and liberties, one sees how lethal this becomes in areas of sexuality, ethics and morality.  There are no boundaries or absolutes.  It is the right of the individual that is absolute.  This, therefore, frames the discussion on the key cultural issues of our day ? e.g., abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation before marriage, genetic and reproductive technologies and their use, and the right to die with dignity.  When ?every man does what is right in his own eyes,? the limits to freedom and rights are boundless.  A 2002 Zogby International poll of college seniors demonstrates the impact of this radical relativism.  Nearly 73% of students surveyed said that when their professors taught ethics, the normal message was that uniform standards of right and wrong do not exist.  Instead, what is right or wrong depends on differences in each individual and in the individual?s culture.  So, if all beliefs are equally valid, there is nothing to debate.  Nothing separates personal ?truth? from self-delusion.  If students currently in college are convinced that ethical standards are simply a matter of individual choice, they are less likely to be reliably ethical in their careers.  We are now living in a culture where there is no shared ethical framework, no ethical foundation and no institutions that help young adults construct a framework for ethical decision-making.  All that is left is the autonomous self firmly anchored in mid-air!  Indeed, sociologist, James Davison Hunter has written:  ?We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don?t really know what we ask for.  To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels.  This price is too high for us to pay.  We want character but without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.  In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.?

See David Brooks in the New York Times (13 September 2011), James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character, p. xv, and James P. Eckman, The Truth About Worldviews, pp. 1-10. PRINT PDF

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3 Comments to “Postmodern Morality Among Today?s Young Adults”

  1. Wes says:

    Dr. Eckman:

    As always, very good commentary. Absence of moral standards leads to absence of mankind. Sin leads to death. I hope you had a wonderful trip.

    God be praised!


  2. Cheryl says:

    Common decency is now “uncommon.” I’ve been thinking of this very thing since having teenage granddaughters. They think about themselves constantly like there is no one on the planet but them. They have no moral obligations to anyone. The Me,Me, state of consciousness. Even though being brought up as Christians the training does not appear consistently because everyone is just to darn busy.
    God will judge not me in the end but I find it sad that this is where society is intimately going.

  3. Horus says:

    This article seems to claim objective truths about how society should be, however I fail to see how Postmodernism can lead to people being less reliably ethical, “we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it” but postmodernism is not about a search for go(o)d at all, choosing “good” with a Postmodern view is a personal choice, which is not so different from people who have religious motivation, but Postmodernism doesn’t try to objectively define a moral system, that doesn’t mean choosing not to live “morally” at all. Wouldn’t it be more “moral” to have a society where people choose to be good of their own agency rather than to try to “enforce” our own ethics, which has been shown to be a failure and cause violence and unrest.