The Catholic Thing
Sociology and the Life of Virtue Print E-mail
By Aaron Urbanczyk

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

I am indebted to one of my students who recently pointed out to me a wonderful op-ed by David Brooks over at The New York Times entitled “If It Feels Right.” Brooks concisely summarizes a fascinating sociological study led by Notre Dame’s Christian Smith analyzing how young adults, ages 18-23, talk about morality. Yes, talk. This study draws attention to the conceptual and linguistic ability of young people to engage with the world of ethics on the level of principle.

Let me cite just a few gems that dramatize what Smith and his colleagues experienced in these conversations:

“It’s personal … It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

“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.”

“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.”

I suggest that Smith and his colleagues have provided an eloquent and clear argument for the value of what used to be known as a liberal arts education. As Brooks observes, Smith’s study is not an exposé on how immoral or dissolute young peoples’ lives are these days. In fact, the study seems to suggest they are, on average, unexceptional regarding excessive vice.  

Yet Smith’s study does highlight with disturbing clarity the intellectual bankruptcy lurking behind the vapid emoting cited above. It shows that young people systematically default into the language of ethical “feelings” primarily because they lack the conceptual ability to think through principled ethical positions.  They also lack the vocabulary to articulate such a mental exercise.

How is it that these young folks, many of whom doubtless attended some level of college, lack the language and mental aptitude that could assist them in thinking beyond such statements as: “what makes something right is how I feel about it”?

I won’t indulge in a gloomy meditation on the general dissolution of Western civilization, but I might point out something about the dissolution of the liberal arts at the college level.  

For several decades we’ve spent our energies reinventing the college experience at the expense of traditional Western humanistic learning. We find substitutions for a unified, humanities-based college curriculum all around us, ranging from the strictly vocational to the ideologically bizarre. If our institutions of higher education aren’t exposing students to the riches of Western humanistic thought, should we be surprised that young adults are functionally illiterate in great numbers when it comes to intelligently discussing the moral life?

I like to think a liberal arts education can be understood as joining a long and illustrious conversation. Perhaps this conversation started when Achilles and Agamemnon fell into a dispute, or perhaps it really got going when Socrates wondered why in the world the oracle at Delphi claimed no one was wiser than Socrates.  

All I know is that what Harold Bloom refers to as the books and school of the ages have a profound and formative influence upon the soul of the student. Getting caught up in the great texts and ideas of Western Christendom not only makes us more human, it gives us the common experience of grappling with concepts and a common language in which to discuss our intellectual labors.

Brooks points out the great insight in Smith’s study of the dearth of moral vocabulary:  “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.” 

As it turns out, if young adults haven’t grappled with Aristotle on virtue, Kant on duty, St. Thomas on the natural law, and Bentham and Mill on the principle of utility, they simply have no language to articulate the human moral experience. And to fill the void, they turn to what our therapeutic culture seems to value above all else – individual sentiment.

Perhaps Smith’s study may offer the most eloquent argument yet for the tangible benefit society reaps from the embattled, impractical liberal arts.  Are we content with a generation of ethical emotivists whose moral ramblings are inescapably, though thoughtlessly, Nietzschean?  If not, perhaps it’s time for us to remember that required classes requiring students to study Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, St. Thomas, and Hegel might be the most practical courses colleges can offer.

Smith’s research on young people talking about their moral experiences recalls to mind something Socrates said just before his death:  “For you know well, my dear Crito, that to express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul.”  Socrates was on to something here – harm to the soul indeed.

Aaron Urbanczyk is Director of the Write Reason Plan and member of the Liberal Arts faculty at Aquinas College, Nashville, Tennessee.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Manfred, September 28, 2011
You captured it, Prof. Urbanczyk! You point out precisely the thinking of the Second Vatican Council. The "dignity of the person", "religious freedom", the abandonment of scholasticism-Thomism, the abandonment of apologetics. This was the source of all our present day ills. As a student, JP II began studying Thomism but did not feel comfortable in it. He ultimately received his higher degree in Phenomenology(?). When my high school age children attended "religion" class in a "catholic" (sic) high school, the question asked of the students was "How do you feel about x y z". The majority would determine what the "morality" on the topic was. The result is children manufactured by In Vitro Fertilization, aberrosexuals "marrying" each other, and the aberrosexual agenda being rammed down our throats. As Paul says in Romans I, "He(God)left them to their own vices"
written by Jacob R, September 28, 2011
That's what happens when your parents are a bunch of drug and sex addicted heathens.

By the way, speak for your own children, because I'm far more comfortable speaking about morality than the majority of people in their thirties and boomers. (For some reason though you guys never get past writing the article about how dumb your kids are and how much less they know than you when in reality older people are now just as useless when it co,es to talking about virtue.)
written by Trish, September 28, 2011
I agree with most what is said here, except for the remark, "...if young adults haven’t grappled with Aristotle on virtue, Kant on duty, St. Thomas on the natural law, and Bentham and Mill on the principle of utility, they simply have no language to articulate the human moral experience." Yes, it is imperative that one grapple with questions of utility, virtue, etc. in order to articulate oneself about morality. I'm not so sure, however, that one must read a given set of authors like Kant, Aristotle, etc. to accomplish said grappling. I'm 31 and went through Catholic school from kindergarten through college, and ergo ended up doing more of this grappling in school than today’s college students, but honestly, I’ve never read Kant, never heard of Bentham, and barely touched Aristotle, and I only started to read Aquinas in the latter half of my undergrad years (as a theology major). This is in part because I goofed off in high school, and in part because my theology courses pulled more from Church documents than sources like Aquinas. And yet I am very capable of verbalizing both the tenets of and my thoughts on morality without having read many of the classics.

I think the problem's more fundamental than what/whom one has read and studied. After all, Aquinas didn’t have courses on the Summa at his disposal nor was Socrates assigned to read Socratic dialogues in class, so if those great thinkers could articulate their thoughts as they did, then reading their works can’t be absolutely essential to being able to articulate oneself regarding morality. The issue seems, rather, to be that young people (including the majority of my own generation) never learn to articulate well their thoughts about anything, period, from morality to more mundane subjects like what one thinks about a current movie. All you, like, have to do is, like, listen to, like, young people, you know, talking, like, to understand what I, like, mean. There are two reasons for this: First, most young people just don’t read anything beyond newsfeeds (I have multiple peers who haven’t touched a book since graduation), yet the act of reading itself, regardless of topic, is incredibly helpful for learning to express oneself coherently. An economics professor I know complains that today’s student can’t write a term paper to save his life, and he says that it’s because the typical young person never reads. Second, most young people take little time to pause and reflect – partly because so many have allowed themselves to get too busy, and partly because attention spans have been shortened by constant gadget use – but it’s really hard to articulate oneself on a subject without having first reflected on that subject.
written by Ray Hunkins, September 28, 2011
Thank you for this illuminating piece.We have come through a long process which has led to our young being educated in institutions that offer utilitarian,job oriented and required politically correct claptrap, sprinkled with a whole lot of propaganda and it has been going on since at least my generation (I'm 72)....and yet I sense an awakening. I see evidence all around - - in my young adult children and their friends, in new start ups like the Wyoming Catholic College, in the home school and charter school movements and yes, on this web site and in your column today. It is reason for real, "hope and change".
written by Martial Artist, September 28, 2011
Thank you, Prof. Urbanczyk, for this essay. I tend strongly to agree with Ray Hunkins (only half a decade my elder), above about the length of time over which this has happened. When I was in college in the '60s, I sensed that something was missing, but didn't know entirely what it was until I saw the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College, about 2 or 3 years ago. The intervening years have brought me to fundamental agreement with you, and apparently also with author Christian Smith.

Unlike Mr. Hunkins, my sense of the awakening is that at the present moment it is still rather a small group. I suppose that perception would be a good signal to me that I need to pray that it grows into a larger movement.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Achilles, September 28, 2011
Very good article. What would surprise me is that anyone who knows anything about public education and the devastating work of the universities would be surprised at the moral vacuity of our youth especially adding the moral vacuity of us adults. Just turn on the television.
Manfred, your fixation with attributing every problem in the world to Vatican II is approaching the comic, if not the tragic. I am not sure it is wise to disparage the Great Pope. It seems you have let how you “feel” cloud potentially clear thinking. The Catholic schools are dismal in general because they imitate the horrid public schools. Are you telling me that if one were able, which one is not, to surgically extricate the Vatican II Council from history that our Catholic schools would be in great shape, and that our Church would be in good condition as well? I find the thought ludicrous. Remember the conversation Pope Leo XIII over heard between God and Satan? Just to mention one of countless factors.
written by Michael White, September 28, 2011
Great article Aaron, I would add that the loss of concept of Universal Truths brought us to this point. A mutual friend of ours, Tom Neal brought up this concept in a doctoral level philisophy class and was met with the sound of crickets. Our secular culture has, by both subversion and apathy, abandoned judeao christian principles in favor of "if it feels good, do it". Unfortunatley, many of our so called "catholic" institutions have followed suit.

Thank you, though, for being a voice crying out in the wilderness, so to speak, against this apathy.
written by Howard Kainz, September 28, 2011
Having taught ethical theory for many years, I agree that it is important for students to know the history of ethical thinking in order to understand many contemporary currents. But, as Aristotle mentions in the Nichomachean Ethics, no one becomes virtuous by studying ethics. There is the additional problem that modern ethicists like Kant and Bentham and Mill reject natural law and propose their theory as a substitute. Actually many in our culture, even if they have not studied the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, are practicing utilitarians -- the right thing to do is whatever brings the greatest amount of satisfaction to the greatest number of people (or the unorthodox egotistical version, "whatever brings me the greatest satisfaction").
written by R. L. Hails Sr. P. E., September 29, 2011
It might be unfair for Prof. Urbanczyk to indulge in a gloomy meditation on the general dissolution of Western civilization, but simply point out the dissolution of the liberal arts at the college level. However consider the deepest gloom, after reading this article, of a Catholic parent who is funding Notre Dame, $50,000 per year in hopes of educating their kid. If this is a valid sampling of the thinking within the cream of America's intellectual elite, ND should focus solely on football team, and forget about nourishing Catholicism in this nation. Perhaps they have. However, if learning and reflection is of interest, I would recommend the writings of St. Augustine, who struggled with feelings for pretty bodies, the commands of God, and Aristotelian thoughts. His thinking, in the fourth century, would be instructive today, in a South Bend bar, with a willing co ed.
written by P. Donovan, September 29, 2011
Very insightful article, thank you. I fully agree with the sense of loss associated with the de-valuation of the liberal arts and the failure to join in to the "long and illustrious conversation" (well put!). I would however caution against too much focus on "the way we were" which is a somewhat natural tendency when we experience a sense of loss. I mention this for both practical and philosophical reasons.
On the practical level, engaging anyone, especially young people, in "conversation" is extremely difficult if the perception is that the "old ways" were the better ways. It has a tendency to devalue current experience and thought and most often leads to a defensive position regarding the insights of the contemporary world.
On a philosophical level, one of the greatest strengths of the liberal arts tradition in education is its ability to engage the world where it is. Here I am thinking of the tremendous insights of the personalist philosophies of people like John Paul II. While there is a clear sense of that long conversation in his writing, there is also a strong sense of engaging and valuing the contemporary questions about the nature of the human person. Why is such a strong emotivist ethic emerging today? Is it simply a lack of understanding of past thought or is it addressing a hitherto undervalued (or under emphasized) aspect of our humanity? There is often truth to be found in our failings and a good strong Liberal Arts education does not separate itself from the past, but it does not get lost in it either - the conversation continues...
written by Mike Powers, September 30, 2011
"Adolescents Need to Grapple with Aristotle?" Kind of ironic considering Aristotle was banned by the Holy See in 1559 along with Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Euclid, Hippocrates, Thucydides, Luther, Calvin and others. (Banned philosophy books later included Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Pascal, Kant , Mill and Satre). Teach these children logic by all means- it's better late than never.
written by Aaron David, October 01, 2011
It is not just young people that have intellectual bankruptcy when it comes to morality. I have struggled with it my entire adult life until becoming a Catholic. I am continually amazed at the wealth of wisdom that has been thrown out in our culture simply because it relates to religion. I recently had a conversation with my 45 year old brother in which I was talking about how morality has been taken out of consideration when passing laws and he said "the trouble with that is, whose morality do you apply?' I was taken aback and didn't know what to say. The correct answer of course is "Yours!" IF you have thought it through, you must vote for what you believe is right and against what you believe is wrong. Who else will vote for what you believe in? My 70 year old mother has the same basic belief, that you can't force your opinion on others. Those that have no scruples will not pause in voting for what they want and imposing their beliefs on others.

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