Do We Create Our Own Morality?

Do We Create Our Own Morality?

You may have seen David Brooks’ recent article entitled “If It Feels Right,” where he talks about “moral individualism” — how young adults are coming to believe that they have the power to define their own moral code, and why that individualism is such a big problem for our society.

As Brooks explains, “The default position, which most of the [young people come] 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?’”

There’s naturally a fear that this rise of moral individualism will lead to moral relativism, where the rules and norms that define our society will no longer hold. But while an ethic of “do what you feel” would obviously be disastrous, there may be a way to transform this “moral individualism” into “moral ownership.”

Here’s how: any time we feel like we are the ones creating something, we will have a significantly deeper sense of ownership over it. Psychologist Dan Ariely calls it “The IKEA Effect” — we have much more attachment and love for a bookshelf that we made ourselves than for a bookshelf that was just given to us when we moved into our apartment.

So if we can lead young people to own their sense of morality — rather than feeling like it was “given” to them — we may be able to help them further develop their sense of right and wrong.

Far too often, those of us who have a stake in trying to create a moral society have focused on teaching, leading us to “give” students lessons in morality. In particular, those of us in the religious community have often used a top-down (and generally unsophisticated) approach of teaching morality by simply saying, “It’s what the Bible says,” or “It’s what Judaism teaches.”

And perhaps that’s why young people are having such difficulties in talking about ethical issues. Brooks notes that “they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.”

It’s not that these schools, institutions and families haven’t tried to teach morality. Instead, it’s most likely that these values were taught from up on high in an overly-simplistic way: “Be nice to people,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Show respect.” And as Dominic Randolph, headmaster at the Riverdale Country School, reminds us in this week’s New York Times Magazine, “[t]he danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms — respect, honesty, tolerance — it seems really vague.”

So that’s why moral education needs to join in the major educational shift towards a focus on the learner, rather than on the teacher. After all, every teacher knows that what we teach and what our students learn are two very different things.

Recently, there’s been some excellent research done about what helps students learn, and one of the best new books on this subject is by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, called Why Don’t Students Like School? He emphasizes that to improve learning, it’s much less important for the teachers to know all the answers, and much more important for the teachers to know how to pose the right questions. He explains:

The material I want the students to learn is actually the answer to a question. On its own, the answer is almost never interesting. But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting. That’s why making the question clear is so important. But I sometimes feel that we, as teachers, are so focused on getting to the answer, we spend insufficient time making sure that students understand the question and appreciate its significance. (Willingham, 75, italics in original)

So this provides a great opportunity for those of us who want to teach about morality. Moral questions, by their very nature, are complex and raise a whole host of follow-up questions. How do we spend our money? Who do we have a responsibility to take care of? What happens when our values conflict?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and they can lead to deep, rich, and nuanced discussions. And in fact, it’s the very difficulty in answering them that makes them so valuable — if they are explored well, challenging moral questions require students to think deeply about them, leading to a deeper level of ownership over how they respond to them.

And it’s also crucial to remember that despite the fact that moral individualism easily leads to moral relativism, it appears that students don’t want to be moral relativists. Christian Smith, who ran the study that explored young people’s moral individualism, believes that “most youth would like to understand and believe in moral realism — that real moral facts exist in the universe that are not merely human constructions — but nobody has taught them how that is possible, how all the pieces can fit together in an intellectually coherent way.”

It’s not that “nobody taught them” — it’s that nobody taught them effectively. Most likely, schools, parents and religious institutions ended up giving simple answers to complex questions.

So if we can change the focus in moral education from “what we need to teach” towards “what our students need to learn,” not only may these young people find the resources they want and need to strengthen their moral sense, they may also be able to own their sense of morality more deeply, as well.

Because in the end, on some level we do “create our own morality,” since ultimately, we are the ones responsible for our own individual decisions. But it’s also true that everything we have learned, we have learned from others — from our communities in school, in our family, and in our house of worship.

And so whatever community we are a part of, we have a responsibility — as well as an opportunity — to not simply teach morality, but to grapple with the hard moral questions that will help our young people learn and live it.


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