Below is an op-ed column by David Brooks from the New York Times. Brooks is commenting on research done about young adults regarding their moral lives. He says the results are depressing, but I disagree.  His column, copied in italics, is titled “If It Feels Right…”  I’ll comment within his column to make my counter-argument.

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth.

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

So today’s young people are living right, but thinking wrong. Already I’m wondering what is so important about this “thinking.”

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so. When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

My view is that young people are working their way into new categories and vocabularies about right behavior that take into account new, emergent qualities of consciousness and culture. Remember, integral theory posits that consciousness and culture have evolved (and continue to evolve) through clear stages of development. The developmental stages relevant to this column are the warrior stage, traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism (for more on these and additional developmental stages see this blog’s theory section). Each of these stages have moral complexions that are distinct from the others. Each stage progressively unfolds within the culture at large and within each individual member of the culture. And, oddly, each stage of development tends to see the stage that is emerging as a regression to the previous stage. This is a mistake I think Brooks makes.

The moral thinking that Brooks is talking about relates to traditional morality, the “right and wrong” codes of the traditional stage of development. It is a hugely important stage of development, one that civilizes the chaos of the previous stage of development (the warrior stage, where “might is right”). While it is true that traditional morality is less relevant to today’s young people, it is not for the reasons Brooks thinks. His thesis, shared by the sociologists he references, is that because young people are unable to report in traditional moral vocabularies, therefore they are morally deficient (even though, again, he says they’re not).

My thesis is that because these “right and wrong” codes are now so woven into the fabric of modern and post-modern culture that we don’t have to think so much about them. Hard fought and hard won in their days of emergence, traditional values today are essentially permanent acquisitions for every person who has grown beyond traditionalism. Anybody who has moved adequately into the modern or post-modern world views understands fair play; nobody wants to exploit other people, at least not overtly. We don’t have to think our way into these understandings; they are given by the culture at large and received by each person as they individually develop into modern and post-modernist world views (which most American young people have).

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

But of course they do deal with issues of right and wrong, including drunken driving, cheating in school and cheating on a partner. They may not wrestle with basic issues in the ways that people did when traditional morality was introduced by codes such as the Ten Commandments (remember, “thou shalt not steal and kill” was news!).  But today this basic moral understanding is the stuff of our lives, and our young people are performing, as Brooks points out, as well as you’d expect from civilized 18 to 23-year-olds.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

There is nothing in the world wrong with this kind of thinking! Indeed, it is the thinking of modernism, which asserts that each person has a boundary of privacy around them where they are free to act according to the dictates of their own conscience, provided they do not infringe on the rights of others. This is a huge developmental step forward from the moralism of the traditional stage, and is only possible once the moralism of the traditional stage is established.

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.

Accepting feelings as a sane means of discernment is the realization of postmodernism, the stage at which people become sensitized to their own interior world and the interior worlds of others. Feelings become privileged at this stage (and often, alas, over-privileged), but only because we have the strata of traditional right and wrong consciousness to stand on. With that solidly under our feet, we now have the luxury to explore new territories of sensitivity, subjectivity and inter-subjectivity with each other. Thank God these young people are concerned with what makes them happy, because the bedrock of their happiness is a civilized world and a civilized psyche. Their moral project is to build on it.

Let’s not forget that the stage of development characterized by moral codes (the traditional stage), is also characterized by ethnocentrism, homophobia, and residual patriarchy, not to mention a view of other cultures that borders on caricature.  And the stage before that, warriorism, is characterized by violence, exploitation and hedonism.

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

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.

Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).

Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles. Institutions will inculcate certain habits. Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them. But their attitudes at the start of their adult lives do reveal something about American culture. For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.

Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called “The Death of Character.” Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described.

This reminds me of the intellectuals of the 50s fretting about conformity, “the organization man” and the stultifying effects of suburban living. Little did they know what the wind was blowing in: Bob Dylan, the Beatles and an age (the postmodern era) completely unforeseen. And unforeseeable.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

Exactly! First morality must be revealed, inherited, shared and imposed. Then, once that is consolidated and reliable, we look for new, more complex insights and guidance that arise in the miraculous privacy of our own deeply civilized hearts. Two more cheers for moral progress!