The Two Gears of Student Moral Discourse

Friends: Tune in tomorrow night (Thursday the 28th) to “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN. Raymond will reunite with the other members of the Papal Posse: TCT’s Robert Royal and Father Gerald E. Murray, along with the spokesman for the recent “Fraternal Correction,” Oxford professor Joseph Shaw. They’ll discuss the Correction along with recent revelations about the thwarting of financial reforms in the Vatican. The program airs at 8:00 P.M. Eastern, but check your local listings. And shows are always available, shortly after airing, on the EWTN YouTube channel.

The first time I tried to drive a golf cart, it seemed to have only two speeds. When I stepped down hard on the accelerator, I took off too fast. When I tried to push it down more gently, it barely moved. As with many such mechanisms, it takes experience and a little skill to find the “sweet spot” between jerking away at high speed, which throws people out of the cart or induces whiplash, and creeping along slower than you can walk.

I have noticed something analogous among many students when they address moral issues. They seem to have two gears. One is their “keeping-my-ironic-distance-I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone-and-I-am-not-judging-anyone-else-but-here-is-how-I-feel” gear. The wind-up to this pitch can be long and involved: “I was born in East Texas and my parents came to this country when I was very young, and I was raised in a fairly strict household ‘n stuff, but here is how I feel, but I’m not judging anyone else.” This is the “I-know-I’m-walking-on-eggshells-with-everything-I-say” gear. Students know they must never seem to be anything but utterly open and tolerant.

The other gear students have – this is the one you see in the news more often recently – is the “How-dare-you-say-that-or-hold-that-view-and-now-I-am-going-to-be-offended-and-scream-my-head-off-at-you-and-maybe-dive-over-the-table-and-choke-you” gear. Note, these aren’t two classes or categories of students; these two gears are normally found in one and the same student.

How, you wonder, could this be? How is it possible for a group of scrupulously non-judgmental students whose main goal in life is to be “open” and “tolerant” of other people’s views to be the same students screaming bloody murder at those whose views differ from theirs?

I wonder myself why the students who are the most dedicated moral relativists in my class – who insist there is nothing that is objectively right or wrong – also complain loudest about grades or treatment they are absolutely certain is “unfair.” “Unfair?” I always want to ask. “You mean objectively unfair? You may feel it is ‘unfair’ from your perspective, the way you were raised, and the way culture formed you, but what if I feel that doing this is not unfair from my perspective, the way I was raised, and the way culture formed me?” But I have no desire to confirm them in their moral relativism.

I prefer to point out that everyone has something they consider “just plain wrong.” Not “wrong for me” or “wrong in my culture,” but doggone it, really, truly, “just plain wrong.” It might be slavery. (Was it really “okay” if the culture of the South thought it was okay?) It might be rape. (Is it really “okay” if the rapist does not think it is wrong?) It might be violence against women or gay people. (If my non-Christian religion and my culture say this is acceptable, does it become acceptable?) Everyone has something they think is “wrong.” We should just admit it and put an end to the charade.

The morning after Kristallnacht (November 1938)

The question should be, “How would I know that something is morally wrong or not and on what basis would I make that judgment and be able to defend it reasonably?” And yet, since the culture these young adults live in steadfastly refuses to teach them anything about the sources of our moral judgments – what makes a “wrong” thing wrong – insisting instead that all such judgments are “intolerant” (except the ones the “right sort” of people make against those people they have decided are “intolerant”), the result is that young adults have no way of thinking about the sorts of moral judgments we all make in some way or another, and many are left with nothing but the two gears: a cringing, walking-on-eggshells approach when considering even the slightest disapprobation of a flagrant crime, on the one hand, or a screaming fit of hysteria at even the slightest variance from the settled orthodoxy the “in-group” espouses, on the other.

It is something of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde problem: one personality too timid, the other boorish and cruel.

What I suggest is happening – and it may seem counter-intuitive at first – is that it is precisely the morally relativistic perspective the culture has inculcated in young people with the goal of making them “tolerant” that has resulted in so much intolerance. Instead of learning to discuss moral judgments openly, tracing conclusions back to premises, and then questioning the basic terms within the premise in a Socratic fashion – what do we mean when we use the word “justice”? equal shares for all, or I get to keep what I earn? – we insist they not engage in moral arguments of this sort at all.

This leaves them defenseless and timid when they want to stand up for their own moral judgments if they go against the opinion of the mob, and intolerant of other people’s “reasons” for their moral judgments when they disagree with them since they know they have no reasons of their own with which to counter them.

Students who believe, as many modern students do, that “arguments can prove anything,” and who have lost their faith in reason and reason’s ability to arrive at truth, will often be left assuming that those on the other side of the issue have no good “reasons” for what they say, hence they can only hold the positions they hold because they have ill will or are “bad people.”

George Orwell, were he still alive, would be reeling. All opinions are equal (but some are more equal than others); “double-speak” where intolerance is labeled “tolerance”; mobs wearing black shirts and masks smashing windows and calling themselves “anti-fascist.” (Does no one remember who the “black shirts” in Italy were? Anyone remember Kristallnacht?)

A society not schooled in the logic and complexities of making well-supported moral judgments will soon be incapable of making any judgments – or any good ones. Instead of reasoned argument and discussion, you get screaming mobs and broken glass.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.