...Don't Think Twice09-16-2011
In his September 12th New York Times op-ed “If It Feels Right…” David Brooks draws our attention to a startling shift in the moral sensibility of American youth. Citing a study of over 200 young Americans led by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, Brooks’ broadens the debate, looking beyond the moral problems of young Americans to ask whether we are living in a moment when the concept of morality is bankrupt? He writes:
“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… 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.”
The inability to identify situations that have a clear moral dimension speaks to the loss of a common framework for evaluating everyday life. Moreover, it reflects a greater disinterest in moral evaluation itself. This lack of a basic moral disposition, Brooks argues, is an expression of a rampant individualism and relativism, unmoored from any sense of collective principles. Brooks points to a statement from one interviewee who says: “I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.” For Brooks, this generation of young people now believes the only compass one ought to follow is one’s own.
As a member of the generation of young people of which Brooks speaks I both support his critique but would like to alter its terms. The problem, both literal and metaphoric, for Brooks is that youth have lost our moral ‘vocabulary.’ This analogy suggests that what he is calling for is a return to the haven of tradition where, in considering ethical dilemmas, we all consult the same lexicon and can come away with unequivocal definitions and firm directives about how to act.
Such a return, Hannah Arendt knew at the time of her writing, was both impossible and undesirable; today it appears to us as downright unfathomable. Despite the inflection of nostalgia some seem to detect in Brooks, I don’t think this kind of throwback is at all what he is after. A better way to describe the impasse we are at is by considering it as a question less of moral vocabulary than of moral ‘grammar.’
For Arendt the very grammar of judging is found in the ability to adopt an “enlarged mentality,” Arendt’s articulation of Kantian disinterest. An enlarged mentality allows one to see and think from another's perspective, thus taking oneself out of oneself and providing access to a non-subjective and commonly shared realm. Such an enlarged mentality is, I believe, still essentially what provides us with a comprehensible moral syntax, allowing us to retain the singularity of the actors involved while also asking us to suspend personal preference.
Despite the decades of progressive education my generation has enjoyed, which boasts the cultivation of critical and compassionate minds, it is the capacity to enter into an enlarged mentality that we lack. It is worth asking if the culture of individual participation and the claim to the inherent validity, equality, and uniqueness of each person’s contribution has dampened the very qualities of mind it seeks to accent? Have we, as individuals with our equal rights to see the world as we do, lost the ability to think and imagine a world shared with others. Smith’s research suggests we may have. It confirms that the pedagogies aimed at progressive inclusiveness are failing in precisely that goal. It is paradoxical, but we are so open as to be closed off to a common world.
While many no doubt find the adoption of Arendt’s enlarged mentality terribly quaint, I would argue that it remains perhaps the most fundamental and poorly performed mental and moral exercise. Its enduring relevance, and its necessity in this moment in particular, comes from the fact that it does not fetter us to frameworks and yet is the precise opposite of the ‘do as I feel’ guide to moral reasoning, displayed by many Americans young and old, that can only be called reckless.
Just because we are no longer living in an age of moral solidity does not mean we can therefore abandon the activity of judging. On the contrary, the precarious nature of our time, means that the hazards of giving up on human judgment become increasingly grave. Arendt observed the abyss of accountability that was opened up by the “cog-theory defense” in Eichmann’s trial, a line of argument that we see from Smith’s research has been revived in different forms today. If all are at fault, no one actor can effectively be held responsible. Director of the Arendt Center Roger Berkowitz has been exploring Arendt's insistence that we must judge in essays and speeches over the last year. You can read his essay "Why We Must Judge" here. And you can watch his TEDx Talk on the Loss of Human Judgment here.
Arendt would likely agree with Brooks’ assessment that we risk a darkening in human affairs when we let moral issues vacate the public realm. “Morality,” Brooks writes, was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.” What remains to be seen however is if these chambers, narrowed by individualism, can expand enough on their own to resuscitate a basic moral sense among my generation. Or have we in fact stumbled upon a strange and dangerous inversion of the famous Socratic notion Arendt quoted, one we will likely keep scoffing at but which remains indelibly marked on human morality--that it is better to suffer than to do wrong--when we hold fast to the belief that the right thing to do is the thing that feels good.