David Brooks does not want to talk about the sexual mores of American youth. I take his point. Once we enter into a discussion of the hookup culture and friends with or without benefits the eyes glaze over and the mind grows dull.
Brooks wants to talk about morals in the larger sense. To what extent do young American adults have a sense of right and wrong, of duty and responsibility? How do they fare when it comes to solving the kinds of everyday moral dilemmas that bedevil all human interactions and relationships?
Addressing a book called Lost in Transition, Brooks limits himself to the way young people think and talk about moral issues. This is misleading. The acid test for morals is how you conduct your life, whether or not you behave ethically.
Some people talk a good game and never live up to their billing. Some people cannot offer a philosophically useful definition of right and wrong but, when they are faced with moral dilemmas in their everyday lives, they know what to do and how to do it. Better yet, they do it.
For my part I am less concerned with whether these young people know that murder is wrong or whether they would know a moral dilemma when they see one. I am more concerned with whether they know how to be polite, courteous, and respectful to others, and especially whether they are learning how to negotiate differences.
Brooks reports that these young products of the American educational system and the American parenting system have no real sense of moral judgments. I can’t say that it comes as a surprise.
As I have been at pains to point out, the therapy culture has done its darndest to teach young people that they have no right to pass judgment on anyone and that they must follow the dictates of their feelings.
If a child is taught that the worst sin is to be judgmental, he will understand that he should neither judge others nor be judged himself. Thus, no one need follow rules that determine right and wrong.
In this anarchic soup, anything and everything goes.
Next, the therapy culture teaches, as Brooks correctly describes it, that if it feels right, you should do it.
Young people have been deprived of the guiding principles that would help them to understand human relations and to conduct their lives. They have been left with the solipsistic idea that if it feels right, they should do it.
Unfortunately, what feels right is often merely what is most familiar. Bad habits often feel right. Not because they are good for you but because they have become old friends. Breaking a bad habit will rarely feel right. It will often involve disrupting routines, and, initially, that never feels good or right.
If you would like a new ethical principle, one that will provide a better guideline that the feel-right principle, try this one: how does it look to other people?
Yes, I know, this is anathema to the therapy culture, but you will do better in life if you ask yourself how your behavior looks to others than if you simply follow your whims, your feelings, and your bliss.
When you think about how your behavior will look to other people, you will at least start seeing yourself as a social being, and not as an individual organism filled full of interesting feelings.