Moral questions: What do Pat Robertson and Young Adults have in common?

David Brooks’ latest op-ed is getting a lot of attention. He is commenting on a study done by Christian Smith et al, Lost in Transition. Brooks writes:

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they 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 that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

Adam J. Copeland ponders Brooks’ article and concludes:

I look forward to reading Smith’s book, but I’ll do so uneasily. When I somehow find the time to pick it up, I’ll do so with this question at the forefront of my mind: Is it that young adults truly have fewer moral resources with which to deal with moral questions than previous generations, or is it that today’s questions are so much more complex that young adults need more skills and understanding to just tread water in our consumeristic pluralized technologically-advanced globalized world?

After all, it’s much easier to teach and theologize that “murder is wrong” than it is to discuss unmanned drone strikes in remote border areas of Afghanistan/Pakistan during an unfunded “war on terror” lasting over ten years.

Christian Caryl writes about the use of drones and other robotics, how they are changing the nature of warfare, and the moral and ethical questions their current use and potential abilities raise. Particularly chilling is a first-hand account by a drone operator in Nevada of his experience targeting drones for use in Afghanistan:

Even though home and wife are just a few minutes’ drive down the road from his battle station, the peculiar detachment of drone warfare does not necessarily insulate Martin from his actions. Predator attacks are extraordinarily precise, but the violence of war can never be fully tamed, and the most gripping scenes in the book document Martin’s emotions on the occasions when innocent civilians wander under his crosshairs in the seconds just before his Hellfire missile arrives on target. Allied bomber pilots in World War II killed millions of civilians but rarely had occasion to experience the results on the ground. Drone operators work with far greater accuracy, but the irony of the technology is that its operators can see their accidental victims—two little boys and their shattered bikes, in one especially heartrending case Martin describes—in excruciating detail.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald also considers Brooks’ article, uses it in class, and confirms Smith’s conclusion (and this is at a “Christian college”). Fitzgerald, like Brooks, blames this moral relativism on individualism, and sees the same among students identified as Evangelicals or raised in megachurches.

Christian Smith, author of the study, answers the question as well.

My experience is that most youth would like to understand and believe in moral realism—that real moral facts exist in the universe that are not merely human constructions—but nobody has taught them how that is possible, how all the pieces can fit together in an intellectually coherent way.

The problem may not be a failure of families, institutions, and culture. Moral reasoning in a complex, globalized world, is difficult.  I do think Copeland’s question is valid. I wonder whether earlier generations were better able to deal with a moral dilemma, or that they simply accepted rules as given and universal and given that the world, or the world they experienced was less complex, moral reasoning was easier. Distinguishing right from wrong is relatively simple when small communities, made up of relatives and friends, are providing the resources for moral reflection and the sanctions, too.

Unfortunately, it’s not just young adults who have difficulty with moral questions. Adults do as well, and so do so-called family values conservative Christian televangelists. Witness Pat Robertson. Here’s a takedown of his argument.

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