Today’s young adults are moral

This piece by David Brooks in the New York Times has me pissed off. The short version is that the authors of a new book based on a 2008 study say that young adults today (respondents were 18-23 at the time of the study) lack the ability to articulate moral ideas, reason through moral dilemmas, or talk about any rights and wrongs beyond their own selves.

In short, they argue that whatever morals young people today have are based on a completely individualistic and relativistic understanding of morality.

To which I say: bull crap.

I’ve done work with youth for a few years now, a group of people that’s pretty much of the same age and cultural milieu the authors are talking about. And they don’t lack morals. They don’t lack the ability to talk about morals (though I can’t say I’ve ever heard one of them say “moral dilemma,” but then, I’m in seminary and I don’t say words like that very often. Do you?). I often think they have a better grasp on this then their elders, based on the discussions I’ve had with them.

In fairness to the authors, they theorize that it is the larger culture that is failing to give any moral reasoning abilities or compass, and I don’t think they’re wrong in that. But why do these studies always look at teens and college students and conclude that they’re in trouble? Why don’t we interview investment bankers in their 50s about their morals? And yeah, I’m thinking here of those guys who made a bunch of terrible investments that eventually sent the entire country’s economy into a tailspin.

And what is this study comparing today’s young adults to? Each other? To some idealized version of a moral, eloquent young adult the authors have in mind? Brooks even points out that the study participants don’t seem to be exhibiting a concerning amount of immoral (according to whatever definition) behavior. I’m not sure what standard is being used to judge here, but I’m doubtful about it.

I know today’s young adults. They’re moral, and they give me hope for the future.

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