“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” (Flannery O’Connor)
Before launching into the theological virtues in our continuing reflection on the role and necessity of virtue in a life well lived, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some thoughts on the status of moral reasoning in our times. After all, this is the context in which we live and the context in which we have to exercise the very virtues which we have been reflecting upon.
Specifically, I would like to share some quotes and insights from the book, Lost in Transition. (I have found his book to be very enlightening as well as extremely sobering.) Lost in Transition is the end result of an extensive multi-year sociological survey conducted of current eighteen to twenty-five year old men and women (aka “emerging adults”). It is very solid in its research and its approach.
One of the areas that the book explores is the moral reasoning capabilities of the age range surveyed. These capabilities, the authors found, are minimal to practically non-existent. The authors stress that this lack of moral reasoning capabilities is not so much a reflection on the generation surveyed as it is a reflection of the failure of previous generations to teach and instruct. (Quotes below are taken from Lost in Transition.)
“But for the moment our point is simply this: the adult world of American culture and society is failing very many of its youth when it comes to moral matters. We are letting them down, sending many, and probably most, of them out into the world without the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims. And that itself, we think, is morally wrong … Colleges and universities appear to be playing a part in this failure as well.”
In relation to our focus on the virtues there is a specific conclusion supported by the research that I believe to be extremely relevant. “Central to many of the confusions in emerging adult moral reasoning is the inability to distinguish between objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts. The error of not distinguishing these two things is this: the realities themselves are confused with, and therefore dependent upon, people’s cognitive grasp of them. What actually exists is conflated into what is believed to exist. But those are different things that must be kept separate. For example, the moral truth that human slavery is a categorical moral evil stands true whether or not people understand and believe it…”
“They (emerging adults) think that people believing something to be morally true is what makes it morally true. They assume that if some cultures believe different things about morality, then there is not a moral truth at all. These mentalities naturally lead to moral skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, and, ultimately, nihilism. Are we surprised then that these are precisely the directions in which we see many emerging adults today actually heading?”
Finally, a prophetic word of warning: “We think that fact is neither new to the world nor the end of the world. However, we also do not believe that the moral orders and experiences of societies remain constant throughout history. Things can definitely get morally better or worse. And the difference between better and worse can matter profoundly for the potential flourishing of human life in those societies.”
The thoughts expressed are indeed sobering and I highly recommend the book to anyone working with youth and/or young adults or anyone just generally interested in understanding the moral climate of our times.
There are two points that I think are worthy of consideration here: 1. the confusion that just believing something to be morally true is what makes it true and 2. the realization that a “good” moral atmosphere in society is not necessarily a given – things can get morally better or worse and this does have profound effects in regards to human flourishing.
Both points, I believe, are based in an almost criminally negligent naivety regarding reality that when pressed and examined collapses like a house of cards. If truth were limited to what I and some others might “believe” (i.e. moral relativism or moral individualism) then we would indeed be in a very sad state of affairs. Part of developing the capacity of moral reason is not to deny the foundational reality of truth but to learn how to discern when truth is being upheld and when it is being betrayed, even by those who might profess a unique knowledge of what is true (i.e. the 9/11 terrorists or church officials and political leaders who cause scandal). It is not that there is no foundational reality to truth; it is that truth can be betrayed. Moral reasoning both demands a distinguishing of the two and, when rightly developed and exercised, provides the tools and skills needed to make the distinction.
There is a moral climate in which we live and it should not be considered a given that this climate will always be conducive to human flourishing. Also, ensuring that the climate does support human flourishing takes both work and continual vigilance. I want to note that the authors of Lost in Transition do not propose a certain set of beliefs in this regard but they do say that the ability to reason well, to both know and formulate one’s own thoughts, to show respect and to be able to enunciate ones beliefs well is of key importance in the work of ensuring a climate where human flourishing can be achieved. This precisely is what is both lacking and not being passed on to our emerging adults. Theirs is a generation that has grown up in a silent void when it comes to matters of moral reasoning and truthfully expressing deep belief; again, not to their fault but to that of the preceding generations.
Knowing and practicing the virtues (both cardinal and theological) is one way, I believe, of developing the discipline and skill of moral reasoning and overcoming the silent void of moral indifference that truly wounds and limits even as it professes an “enlightened” neutrality.