I like and recommend David Brooks, a syndicated op-ed columnist of the New York Times. He's a conservative who holds traditional values. I like him because he's value rich and draws his information from the best of contemporary thought, including various realms of science, even the somewhat fuzzy social sciences.
This week he wrote about the amorality of young adults, 18-23 year olds that seemingly do not have a moral center. They lack ethical grounding, according to a recent study and new book by a distinguished Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Here's part of what Brooks wrote in a column titled “If It Feels Right.”
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.
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.
“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.
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?”…
He concluded with this paragraph: 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.
What Brooks is talking about is nothing new. It is a reflection of the postmodern era in Western civilization that includes the erosion of a culturally traditional Christian point of view and the ethical grounding it long offered. Here's my quick understanding of postmodernism.
I’ve long argued that the modern era was petering out in the late 19th century and was finished by the utter horror of World War I. There were a number of thinkers who anticipated and realized the end of the modern era, such as Nietzsche who by the mid-1880s had proclaimed the Death of God. (This really meant that a long prevailing Western Christian worldview/value system no longer prevailed.) My favorite voice/prophet of postmodernism is Albert Schweitzer. (I'm so glad that Ron Solberg presented Albert Schweitzer's magnificent life in his summer service.") Among his extensive accomplishments, Schweitzer was an eminent Christian theologian of the transitional, modern-to-postmodern, era. At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, Schweitzer declared that the great organizing principle of Western Civilization, what he summarized as the will-to-progress, was no longer valid. And so he set about to find a new organizing principle. After much striving and a mystical intuition on an African River while gazing upon a herd of hippopotamus he settled upon the powerful notion of Reverence for Life. (Incidentally, it's that point of view which is now inspiring the Animal Ministry movement within Unitarian Universalism, especially within our own congregation.)
The postmodern dilemma, including the deconstruction of values, has been magnified by what is generally called globalism: the shrinking of the world and an ever increasing pluralism, playing out as a clash of cultures.
One of the most apt expressions of a postmodern world comes from a celebrated poem: by William Butler Yeats, written at the conclusion of the First World War. It's called “The Second Coming.” You probably know the chilling opening stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Over the years I've returned repeatedly to Schweitzer's Reverence for Life Ethic. I find it, and the story of its making, compelling. But it's not an easy sell for a variety of reasons. And so, like Schweitzer a century ago, I've striven to come up with an organizing principle for the 21st-century sensibility -our brave new millennium.
In recent years, I've considered the ethic of the Golden Rule and the notion of Compassion, as organizing principles – the basis of an effective new world ethic that takes into account the conjoined realities of pluralism and an ever-shrinking world. I've spoken to each in recent years, particularly as expressed in the recent movement known as Charter for Compassion which uses Compassion to edge toward the Golden Rule. The leading voice for this movement is Karen Armstrong, former nun and now popular writer on religious concerns.
Now, I like Charter for Compassion. Compassion, I maintain, emerges from a natural instinct; it’s not surprising then, that Compassion is a principle embedded, explicitly and implicitly, in many world religions, notably Buddhism. And I appreciate the relative simplicity, as well as the obvious universality, in time and across cultures, of the Golden Rule. But as I monitor their conjoined progress, that is, their contemporary appeal, I see them as deficient. (For example, I don't think Compassion can be easily compelled. Additionally, Karen Armstrong has been strongly criticized as a Muslim apologist; and there’s considerable anti-Islamism. The proof, arguably, of an underwhelming response is a relative paucity of signatures on Charter for Compassion web site, only 77,000 signatures of affirmation in 22 months—hardly viral.)
I've been thinking, there has to be a more effective organizing ethical principle.
This summer, with fewer obligations, I've reflected on such an organizing ethical principle. And in late August my musings cohered, thanks to CNN. On an idle Sunday morning during the Labor Day weekend, I saw four pieces of news that converged in a theme.
First, there was a tape showing a high school football game in Sarasota, Florida, a melee following a questionable call by a referee. It ended with one of the 14-year-old players running across the field and tackling the referee, throwing him to the ground.
Second, speaker of the house John Boehner, second in succession to the presidency, had refused the original date that Pres. Obama proposed for speaking before a joint session of Congress regarding unemployment creation of jobs—crucial issues for the nation. It would interfere with House business and a televised debate of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Third, one of our Illinois Representatives (8th District), the Republican Joe Walsh, justified his intentions in calling Pres. Obama an idiot. Representative Walsh protested," what I meant was Obama is not an idiot but his policies are idiotic." Rep. Walsh announced he was intending to stay home during the special joint session of Congress.
Fourth, an African-American comedian Katt Williams defended his 8 min. rant against Mexicans that spewed forth in the middle of his Phoenix comedy club act. He'd been heckled and that was his response. Of course, the act had been videotaped by someone in the audience.
These four news items brought to my mind the theme of respect, really a lack of respect each incident illustrated.
The Notion of Respect
The notion of respect has been percolating in my thoughts for a couple decades, at least. When I started out in the Ministry it is commonplace to talk about three signatures of historic Unitarianism: 1) reason in religion, 2) complete freedom of belief and of conscience, and 3) broad and generous toleration of one another and of other religions. From the beginning the signature of toleration disturbed me; it seemed condescending. So I began to substitute the word acceptance for toleration. But acceptance seemed patronizing. I finally settled upon the word respect, that respect is an historic signature that we strive to emulate and perpetuate today.
Of course, whenever I think of respect what always pops into my mind is the song of that name, an American pop anthem, made famous by Aretha Franklin: "r-e-s-p-e-c-t, find out what it means to me/take care of TCB."
Next I think of a term more recent: to diss or to be dissed. Diss of course is urban lingo for disrespect.
My point here is that respect and its opposite disrespect are popular terms, commonly and widely understood. (Compassion and Reverence, to which I’ve already referred, are more difficult and even obscure concepts, too elitist.) Respect and disrespect involve both a doer and a receiver—a subject and an object.
One of the better Internet references is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The SEP has a lengthy article on Respect that begins with a popularized prelude to more scholarly thoughts.Respect has great importance in everyday life. As children we are taught (one hopes) to respect our parents, teachers, and elders, school rules and traffic laws, family and cultural traditions, other people's feelings and rights, our country's flag and leaders, the truth and people's differing opinions. And we come to value respect for such things; when we're older, we may shake our heads (or fists) at people who seem not to have learned to respect them. We develop great respect for people we consider exemplary and lose respect for those we discover to be clay-footed, and so we may try to respect only those who are truly worthy of our respect. We may also come to believe that, at some level, all people are worthy of respect. We may learn that jobs and relationships become unbearable if we receive no respect in them; in certain social milieus we may learn the price of disrespect if we violate the street law: “Diss me, and you die.” Calls to respect this or that are increasingly part of public life: environmentalists exhort us to respect nature, foes of abortion and capital punishment insist on respect for human life, members of racial and ethnic minorities and those discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, or economic status demand respect both as social and moral equals and for their cultural differences. And it is widely acknowledged that public debates about such demands should take place under terms of mutual respect. We may learn both that our lives together go better when we respect the things that deserve to be respected and that we should respect some things independently of considerations of how our lives would go.
… Although a wide variety of things are said to deserve respect, contemporary philosophical interest in respect has overwhelmingly been focused on respect for persons, the idea that all persons should be treated with respect simply because they are persons. Respect for persons is a central concept in many ethical theories; some theories treat it as the very essence of morality and the foundation of all other moral duties and obligations.
I'm just beginning to appreciate the practical possibilities and wide range implications of respect as an ethical organizing principle. And throughout this coming church year, now again, I will touch upon aspects of respect.
For now, I ask you to think often, when you are out and about, navigating your larger world, in terms of respect.
Be aware of what you respect and why. Recognize when you behave in respectful ways, as well as disrespectful ways. Muse about the motivations and source of the respect you offer.
I urge you to be intentionally respectful, monitoring the effect on yourself as well as the results on others. The focus of course, is respect for other human beings, our fellow women and men. But there's so much more that we respect in the common course of our lives beyond human kind, even beyond the natural world. (One of our treasured UU principles speaks “to respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.) We respect traditions, institutions, ideas, places and so much more.
Also think about self-respect in terms of your first nature (instincts) and your second nature actions (nurture).
I'm of the mind that respect is transformative; it makes you a better person and our world a better place. It should be our default attitude.
Here's a little consciousness raiser to begin: sign your e-mails or your letters Respectfully or Respectfully Yours, and mean it.