This past spring I was teaching an introduction to ethics course to a group of mostly freshman students. In an attempt to spur discussion I asked the students to consider the following moral question and give and defend their stance on it. “Suppose someone approached you and offered you $1,000,000. All you have to do to receive the money is push a button. Once you push the button the money is yours, and someone will be killed. You are told that the person to be killed is someone you do not know and have never met. Nonetheless, the person will have to be killed upon pressing the button so that you can receive your money.” I then asked the students to think about this question and give their viewpoint with some type of reasoned argument in defense of their positions.
The Twofold Problem
The fact that most students had no qualms about receiving money at the expense of life was astonishing. The supporting arguments were not very strong, but they all seemed to have the same general tenor i.e. focus on the life-changing prospect of gaining a vast sum of money and downplaying the significance of the loss of one human life. The open and unabashed callousness of the responses took me by surprise. I was also struck by how this position contradicted the often mentioned phrase “it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t hurt someone” that the students would frequently utter when in discussions in class.
Though this episode is merely anecdotal, I do think that it is commonplace today to find an utter lack of moral sensibility and sound moral reasoning, as displayed by these students, in many post-secondary institutions and in our society at large. By moral sensibility, I mean the recognition of the unique significance of human life and relationships and impact our lives and decisions have on ourselves and one another. What I want to discuss is what I take to be two (among many) root causes of this decline, and two ways to try and combat it.
Controversy and Relativism
Bishop Fulton Sheen remarked in his book Old Errors and New Labels that the United States is often reputed to be suffering from intolerance, but it is actually suffering from too much tolerance and the decline of controversy. He goes on to say that what he means is that there is a lack of critical engagement and critique of ideas taking place in this country. The reason for this is that people no longer think for themselves. They want to receive information or rather a confirmation via television, magazines, newspapers and the like.
This causes a breakdown in the ability and desire to analyze and criticize both one’s own ideas and those of the people around us. What we desire are blurbs, easy to digest summaries, and entertaining television programming as the means by which we intake and analyze the bulk of the ideas we encounter in life. (That these ideas were written well before the advent of social media is astonishing.) This is what I take to be one of the root causes of a lack of moral sensibility, i.e. a lack of clear and critical engagement with one’s own experiences and the ideas that one encounters in life.
If a person is largely disengaged in the activity of carefully examining his own actions and beliefs, the ideas he encounters and the decisions he makes, and if he is used to taking in his information in “bite-sized” pieces from places like Twitter and cable news, is it any wonder that he may be lacking when it comes to understanding the significance of moral issues? Whether you agree with Kant, Mill or Aristotle you can see that all three and probably most moral philosophers hold that proper moral formation and understanding requires discipline, study, and hard work. It requires an appreciation for the significance and uniqueness of moral issues and the consequences of moral actions and this appreciation presupposes deep reflection, critical thought, understanding and maturity. If moral sensibilities are shallow, then it is highly likely these four qualities are lacking.
The second cause in the decline of moral sensibilities (as I see it) is a mix of what I call libertarian freedom and moral relativism. As we know, libertarians have a very robust sense of self-ownership. I do not wish to get into a discussion of libertarianism here. I merely want to point out that it is more or less this sense of self-ownership that undergirds the oft-heard phrase “you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.” Typically what is mean by “hurt” is to impose in any way upon someone without their consent. This view encourages one to think of himself as a kind of a blank slate upon which he can do anything he likes so long as he doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s slate without asking first.
The Twofold Way Out
Along with this idea of self-ownership, appeals to relativism are commonplace in our society and colleges as well. One often hears phrases like, “speak your truth,” “I was just telling my truth” etc. Moral relativism is the idea that what is good and just is relative to the desires, thoughts and or whims of each and every individual person. Now, this is where the problem of the decline of moral sensibilities becomes very serious.
We now have a situation in which many people have not cultivated the ability to analyze ideas and experiences critically (what I have called, following Bishop Sheen, the decline in controversy )and in which self-ownership and freedom are heavily emphasized along with relativity of moral goodness. In this case, the particular emotions and pleasurable desires that each individual person happens to have are the standards by which moral judgements are meted out. This will almost necessarily lead to a decline in moral sensibility because such analysis lacks the understanding, depth and rigor needed to both recognize and analyze moral issues. What can we do about this?
Do Not Fear Controversy
First, I would suggest that if a lack of controversy has generally weakened the ability of many to adjudicate and appropriately recognize moral issues, we need to find a way to inject controversy back our lives and discussions. One of the effects of this decline is that many today do not wish to be offended. They do not want to hear what might be contrary to what they believe. In an age in which relativism and individualism reign without any sort of truly deep critical analysis this makes sense.
In this atmosphere, people tend to conflate criticism of ideas with personal rebuke. They do not recognize criticism as rigorous rational disputation. And people generally do not take kindly to rebukes. However, this mindset will never allow us to grow mentally and holistically as individuals. Sometimes a good way to make others see this is to show to them the controversial consequences of their present level of analysis.
For example, when I was speaking with the head of the philosophy department at Marymount Manhattan College before I began teaching there last spring she said to me, “You have to make the students realize that if the moral relativism they profess is true, then there was nothing wrong with the Holocaust. Who wants to hold that position?” In an effort to bring back deep critical understanding of the moral significance of human life and actions, it may be necessary to propose examples like with friends and family and not fear to make your interlocutors little uncomfortable.
Endure Until the End
Secondly, and specifically as Catholics we must realize that there are many things we simply cannot do on our own. As St. Ignatius of Loyola is reputed to have said, “Pray as if everything depends upon God and work as if everything depends upon you.” Having proper moral sensibilities does take effort, time, reflection and experience. But prior to all of this is the conscience decision of the moral agent to do partake in this. Each person must make their own choice about whether or not they are willing to reevaluate how they look at morality and the worth of human life.
Even if after all of the work and effort to try and reinvigorate controversy seems to fail, it is best to be patient and continue to work and pray that God’s grace will enter into the heart and souls of those whose moral sensibilities are in need of rearrangement. We cannot make the choice for anyone, but if we show them the door and continue to work a sense of moral sensibility may begin to enter into the hearts and minds of those who now seem to lack it.
 Joseph de Guibert, SJ, The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1964), 148, n. 55