Sociology and the Life of Virtue

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 a scholar, writer, and teacher who lives and works in Nashville, TN.