We Can’t Eat a Meaningful Philosophy of Life: Thoughts on David Brooks’ “If It Feels Right…”

In late 1950s the Jewish American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, set out to map the development of human moral reasoning.  Following World War II, Kohlberg had served on a ship smuggling Jews through the British blockade of Palestine.  As a scholar, Kohlberg was committed to identifying universal principles of moral thought—believing that in the wake of the Holocaust, it was simply indefensible for psychologists to remain morally neutral or relativist.  Kohlberg developed six stages of moral development, based on children’s explanations for how they would resolve a hypothetical moral dilemma.  Moral reasoning, he argued, developed from a focus on punishment through adherence to social norms and the law, ending in universal principles of justice.  The project was thrilling; in the 1960s and 70s, it helped turn a generation of scholars into activists whose work engaged deeply in the pressing problems of the day.  Kohlberg went on to work passionately for moral education based on “just communities” where students and adults shared power and authority.

But Kohlberg’s colleague, Carol Gilligan (another Jewish American psychologist), began to hear moral voices that didn’t fit Kohlberg’s model.  Male college students facing draft decisions during the Vietnam War, for instance, fell silent rather than be seen as morally undeveloped for focusing on relationships.  Women considering abortions, too, talked about other people’s feelings; they described a moral universe that was contextual, concerned more with care for others than the concept of justice.  Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg’s theory—that it was based entirely on interviews and observations with boys and men, whose experiences were enshrined as “normal”—ushered in a post-modernist era in social science: a move away from universal theories towards an emphasis on context and specificity.

Now David Brooks (guess what: he’s Jewish too!) writes lamenting young Americans’ lack of language or even inclination to wrestle with moral dilemmas.  Is he right to worry?  At the risk of sounding like a morally-equivocal young person, yes and no.

In a 1971 survey of freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles, 73% said it was very important or essential to them to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” while 37% said the same about being “well-off financially.”  In 2009, the percentages had flipped: 78% prioritized wealth, while 48% sought a meaningful philosophy.  Under the dark cloud of the recent financial meltdown, driven by unchecked greed and recklessness, we would be justified in feeling a bit Kohlbergian right now, desiring some moral clarity for the next generation.  But as Gilligan suggested, even “universal principles” turn out to be cultural and contextual.  Take the example above.  In 1971, only 26% of 18-24 year-olds enrolled in college.  In 1970, only 10% of the adult population had a bachelors degree, and it was still expected that one could earn a middle-class income without one.  In 2009, 41% of 18-24 year-olds enrolled in college, and a bachelors has increasingly become a job requirement for middle-income earners.  Perhaps in 1971, college students cared more about philosophy because, as a relatively privileged bunch, they could afford to.  Perhaps today, focusing on earning money is an ethical response to seeing one’s family in dire economic straits.

The point is this: moral issues are complex and difficult.  Not having adequate language to describe them (or not talking about them in ways researchers might recognize) doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel them deeply.  Jews know that ethical issues are complicated; it’s no accident that Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Brooks are all concerned with the moral life.  They come from a tradition that values and encourages engagement with contradiction and complexity, wrestling with the messiness of life as it is lived.  If young people do, indeed, lack language and frameworks for thinking and speaking about ethics, then it falls to us as caring adults to listen for the moral dilemmas they face in their lives.  We must hear these dilemmas not as technical problems to be quickly fixed, but as opportunities to help them wrestle with the deep and irresolvable questions Jews—and people everywhere—have always faced.  

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