Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Slash and Burn. So To Speak.

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So, okay. It’s a little too easy, beating up on college students for what they don’t know. It’s especially easy beating up on students at the kind of “colleges” that are really only glorified vocational schools. My kids are not going to Yale, after all, and they’re not majoring in history, philosophy or French. They take “management” courses. They look for “careers” in “criminal justice,” meaning ending up as parole officers and on police forces. Some of them are ‘pre-law,” but none of them understands that the law schools don’t give a damn what your major is. None of them know enough about the world to understand that where they go to college is more important than what they major in there, and that, being where they are, they’re already largely screwed.

On the other hand, they’re not the only kids I teach, and the rest of my students are not much better off in the cultural context area. All those stories you hear about college juniors who can’t place the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century–I had a kid who confidently proclaimed that it started on December 7, 1941–are true.

This is a symptom of something important, and it definitely has an effect on what I’m talking about here, but for the moment I want to go a little further than this and talk about the one thing all these kids share, the one thing they’re sure they “know.”

That thing is the nature of morality. Ask any one of these kids, inner city or suburban, A student or flunking out, and they will tell you that morality is relative. Good and evil mean different things to different people. It’s all a matter of opinion.

The one exception to this anthem are the kids from very traditional religious homes, and what they know is that “good and evil are what God says they are.” This is sort of an improvement over what their classmates think, but not by as much as it may seem on the surface.

In the first place, because my kids are lying. They definitely do not think that good and evil are a matter of opinion. You can discover this any time you want by simply saying something in support of one of the many things they abhor, or they think they are supposed to abhor. They feel about racism, child abuse and smoking what the Puritans felt about adultery, heresy and bestiality.

The problem is not that child abuse is a minor issue or that they ought to think better of it, but that they have no idea why it’s supposed to be wrong. And this is why I say that their peers from traditionally religious families aren’t much better off. “God says so” may sound like an explanation of why something is moral or not, but it isn’t really. It’s just another way of saying “shut up and don’t ask questions.”

Of course, “shut up and don’t ask questions” is an approach to morality with a long and detailed history in every civilization on earth, but one of the ways in which Western civilization has differed from many others has been precisely in the fact that we have tried, over and over again, to find an objective, logical and rational foundation for calling something “moral” and something else not.

As Socrates pointed out–in a Socratic dialogue the name of which I’ve completely lost, probably due to the fact that it’s not yet five o’clock in the morning–we really DON’T accept “God says so” as an adequate answer to “why is that wrong?” We don’t accept it as an adequate answer to why something is right, either. For most of us, being told that “God says” that torturing small animals is a good thing is an invitation to give up on God.

Religion has this problem as a matter of course, and Western religion, which posits an all-powerful and all-good God, has it in an acute form. Both Christianity and Judaism managed to get around the problem by saying that if you think God is telling you to torture small animals, you’re wrong, because it is not in the nature of God to tell you something like that.

In fact, there is a vast tradition of Catholic moral theology the entire premise of which is that the moral world, like the physical world, is logical and rational and capable of being understood “by reason alone”–meaning, without the help of revelation. For Thomas Aquinas, knowing that Christ was God and came to earth to redeem mankind from its sins required revelation, but knowing that the slow, painful murder of a child is morally repugnant only required that you be able to think.

The Catholic Church didn’t invent this approach by itself. Both of the major influences on its intellectual history were already pointed in this direction–Judaism through the rabbinic tradition, and moral philosophy of Greece and Rome through its five hundred years of moral philosophy.

But here’s the thing. My religious kids, the ones whose only answer to why something is moral is “because God says so,” have more in common with their secular peers than they do with most of the Christianity that preceeded them. Even the New England Puritans, living out in the middle of nowhere in a hostile wilderness, didn’t settle for that and nothing but that. They expected their preachers to be learned men, and to be able to outline and explain the cultural and historical as well as religious roots of everything they considered right and proper. Jonathan Edwards may have thundered on about what happened to sinners at the hands of an angry God, but he did it in the middle of a sermon over an hour long, that referenced not only scripture but Greek and Roman authors, the history of the world as he knew it, and the progress of modern science.

The idea that morality is entirely subjective , that we make it up, that there is no firm ground on which we can judge one moral system to be better or worse than another, is very new. It shows up in force only in the nineteenth century. It really gets going only in the twentieth.

But the issue is not the rise and fall of religion. Moral reasoning began in the West with the Greeks, and they were not inclined to base their morality on the behavior of their gods. Plato and Aristotle saw morality as something inherent in human beings, something about being human that we could discover by reasoning. They did not think that morality was something we made up, something “subjective,” that was different for every person, a matter of opinion.

My secular kids have not be turned into moral relativists. They’ve just been trained not to think about morality. And that’s just as true of my religious kids. Whether the bottom line is “God says so” or “it just IS,” what they’re really saying is: shut down your mind, shut down your judgment, shut up and don’t ask questions.

And the problem with that is, as soon as something comes along to distract you, you suddenly have nothing to stand on at all. Then morality really does become subjective–or, more likely, nonexistent. Just do it? Who says? God says so? Those people over there think God says something else.

It’s what I meant before about nihilism, about a world that has been empty of content, of a world that is meaningless in the sense of being shapeless, random, inchoate.

A lot of my kids live in a world that is empty of everything, just nothing, and void.

The Pop Tarts are its goddesses.

Written by janeh

October 2nd, 2008 at 5:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. Jews have the Torah and Talmud. The Torah (what Christians call the first 5 books of the Old Testament) is the word of God. The Talmud is the work of the Rabbis. All the detailed rules about Kosher cooking and what can and can not be done on the Sabbath come from the Talmud. So Jews clearly distinguish the word of God from the human interpretation of that word.


    2 Oct 08 at 3:58 pm

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