Two-thirds of young adults couldn’t name a moral dilemma, says David Brooks, citing a study done on that age group by University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith.
‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,’ is how one interviewee put it.
So often the respondents would say “It’s up to them” – meaning it’s up to each individual to decide for himself or herself what is best to do. In this framework, there is no “right” and “wrong” so much as there is individual preference.
As a moral theologian, I found the study both disheartening and true – this matches what I see in my classroom every day, not just with the present generation of students, but for quite a few years (back to my own college days and beyond?). It reminds me, again and again, that Pope Benedict XVI is exactly right to want to focus on relativism as a key problem.
But Brooks takes this analysis further. This isn’t just a case of relativism; it’s a case of even being unable to speak about moral problems, even to name something. These students simply have no language for saying what is “right” and “wrong.” Where there is no language, there is no way to see where problems are.
Take, for example, my bioethics course last fall. I invited a friend of mine, a pediatrician, to come and speak to the students. “Name the top issues facing medicine,” he asked them.
They could name what I call “the Big Four,” the things that always make the news: abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and cloning.
“Now,” continued my friend, “How many times did I deal with those in my practice last year?” No one moved to speak. “Exactly, NONE,” he said.
No wonder those students couldn’t name a moral dilemma. No wonder ethics feels abstract. This is not to say that there aren’t serious moral dilemmas that people face about abortion or euthanasia or the others. But those are issues far less encountered than the daily issues people face every day, but can’t name as moral questions. “How will I treat my roommate? How will I spend my money? How will I take care of the apartment in which I live, and alongside that, demonstrate care for my roommates?”
These are the real life questions students face – and the ones they can’t see as moral questions because, if the Big Four seem relative, well everything must be relative. When I finally get to the point of getting students to think about the ways in which they are living moral lives every single day, for good or ill, they then want to say, “Well, that’s just all about love.”
Except the point is – we can no longer name even what it means to love if we can’t identify the problems we and the people around us face. How can we love each other if we don’t realize that, for example, my individual decision to use air freshener in my own individual room is seriously detrimental to my allergic apartment-mate, even though she doesn’t live in my room? It is exactly the reverse of what Paul advocates in his First Letter to the Corinthians, that if eating meat causes my brother or sister to fall, I will not eat meat (8:13). That isn’t first about my preferences, but someone else’s.
So – to return to my pediatrician friend and others like him- what are “the issues”? They are mostly everyday things, not Big Things. Poverty, for one – the fact that he has severely asthmatic patients who can’t afford medicine so end up in the ER often – a plight that could be avoided if they had the medicine! The fact that his patients can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables but can afford, calorie for calorie, the hamburgers and packages of orange crackers with peanut butter, that tend to increase their diabetes and heart disease risks, even at young ages. The question of measles outbreaks, because there are parents that won’t vaccinate at all (not just on a delayed schedule – at all) their otherwise healthy kids for fear of autism, but which then puts seriously ill kids at risk. And so on.
Daily actions, ordinary actions – these are our moral lives in large part.
Thomas Aquinas says that “Human acts are moral acts.” What would it mean to live our lives knowing this? What would it mean to realize that almost every moment of my life is a “moral dilemma” because every moment of my life there is the possibility of witnessing to Christ – or not?