Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Haven't the Young Always Been Thus?

Brooks has a column in the NY Times today that made me think about the tension between individual and group morality.  Like most things, this is presented as something of a conflict or choice between morality being "revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart."  Also like most things, I think this viewpoint is fundamentally wrong.  Morality only exists in the balance between the two, when private searching is met by a social framework.  Frankly, I consider people on either side of the fence to be nuts.

But the main point I wanted to bring up is that I think the moral philosophy of youth used to be just as empty, only on the opposite side of the fence.  It's a bit of a literary trope for youth to be presented as either absolutely sure of their convictions, something that gets eroded with experience, or to be unmoored from any moral anchor, until they learn responsibility.

So I don't think anything new is revealed here, only rather then the unthinking, unyielding certitude of the Victorian age the tendency toward moral drift has come to the fore (though I've seen plenty of the unyielding certitude of youth even today and I bet there were plenty that were morally unmoored at the height of the Victorian age, all that has changed is the frequencies).  But neither of these are moral in any meaningful sense of the word, the rules based certainty of youth doesn't really choose between a relatively enlightened modern morality, the Jacobinism of the French revolution, Bolshevism, or the crazy philosophy of Qin Shi Huang's China.  Following a set of rules blindly doesn't make one any more moral than the kid adrift in moral relativism, if anything, the certitude makes one more likely to be a dupe in grave moral errors, as has tragically happened so often in the past.

 While there is probably more we could do to prepare people for moral decision making, I'm prone to thinking this is a step up from the past.  With time, accumulation of responsibilities will teach just about everyone some hard moral lessons.  While it would certainly help to have more of a shared framework than we do today, the strict inherited codes of the past seem like they would be greater barriers to true moral reflection and understanding than modern relativism, whose very looseness seems to guarantee that an individual will eventually be faced with situations forcing their moral intuition to grow up fast.  Someone with a strict code is less likely to be confronted with situations to make them reflect on on how the individual and society interact, thus stunting their moral growth.

While I have little doubt that few young people display much understanding of moral questions, I would also posit that young people of the past could do little more than make moral sounding noises.  I would also suspect that many young people today will never reach any kind of moral peace with the universe they live in, as I suspect many older people brought up with defined rules and practices never had.  Morality lies in the tension between self and society, desire and obligation, neither relativism nor rules touches morality on its own.

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