At the end of every semester in my ethics class (a required class for all students here at the Mount), I read ethics research paper assignments. The 10-page paper is supposed to use the tools of the class to analyze a particular moral issue or problem; we try to get students to pick topics that reflect something relevant to their major or future life, something in which they have a clear stake. This semester, I have over 90 of them.

The idea is to integrate the course material, not by giving a specific “answer” to the problem, but by using the tools. We avoid a typical Kant vs. Mill face-off in teaching the class, instead focusing on a broad account of the ultimate ends of life, the goods involved in particular practices, the virtues necessary to pursue these excellences, and finally the “big-picture beliefs” about “the way things really are” that anchor moral claims (h/t Bill Mattison). As with any required undergraduate course, some students grasp the tools more adequately than others.

But unlike other required undergraduate courses, students already come in with some things going on their heads about what “ethics” is and what constitutes an argument for something, and so inevitably some papers “default” back to what they brought in with them. For a few students, this might be recourse to church authority. But increasingly, I noticed this semester the strengthening of a much more dominant theme: what I call “the libertarian default.”

The libertarian default appears in similar ways across a wide variety of topics. The form is nearly always the same: the student has difficulty sustaining a 10-page moral argument, even with the help of research literature and the class tools, and so the trump card that recurs is basically an argument for autonomy. The conclusion: Things are contested, and therefore no one should impose their views on others. All attempts to engage issues of what is right and wrong eventually lead to the conclusion that people have different views, but what is important is that people be allowed to follow these different views… and most importantly, that we certainly shouldn’t compel people to do/not do something that they want to not do/do. Many things are uncertain, but this is certain. I had a paper this semester from a student in communications who “defaulted” when dealing with the case of a photographer who publishes a news photo of grieving parents holding a dead child after a car accident. Sure, the media should be able to do what they want. I had another paper which “defaulted” on the question of corporeal punishment for children who lie. Let parents do what they want. And perhaps most insidiously, I had a string of papers about euthanasia, a surprising number of which simply avoided the subtle difficulties that have long ensnared the debate on this issue in favor of making things simple: just appeal to the “libertarian default.”

The default tends to cut across political lines and issues, and what is most striking to me is an inability to argue for what we call in the class “big-picture beliefs” – that is, substantive claims about real justice, dignity, social solidarity, and meaning – other than appeals to free-standing claims about rights and freedoms. The rights are no longer really “for” anything; freedom of speech and of the press is not “for” vigorous democratic debate, or even “for” entrepreneurial exchange of ideas. It’s just there. The only relationships that matter are ones of personal affection, and these are ultimately elective and sentimental. After all, we cannot presume things about family structures.

All this is hardly a news flash, but I must admit, after years of grading these papers, the libertarian default is getting more and more dominant and irresistible. My sense is we are now scraping the bottom of the barrel of the cultural capital built up over many generations – it is appearing in the “nice” students who choose to attend a small, rural Catholic liberal arts college. There are an awful lot of converging factors supporting this. Cynicism is widespread about the collective action possible by government. Many are off-put by the stridency and intolerance of religious claims. The twin forces of consumerism and the educational system relentlessly preach a focus on complete respect for others’ choices, that no one should tell you what to do with your life except you. A colleague showed me a SNL clip called “The Group Hopper” that parodied recent movies like Divergent – the battle hymn of their republic was “we will not be categoried!!!” The combination of that and the lowest-common denominator of “the goods life” makes robust, substantive claims about “who we are” and shared commitments and responsibilities very, very hard.