At least that's how David Brooks explains it in a recent New York Times editorial about the morality of emerging adults. Brooks discusses the new book Lost in Transition and uses data from it to argue that young people have no compass with which to traverse moral terrain.
Brooks states that instead of being able to differentiate right from wrong, those in their late teens and early twenties are apt to be non-judgmental and less willing to condone or condemn, unlike older generations. "Who am I to judge?" seems to be the motto of this group, and for Brooks, this kind of relativism indicates moral decline.
Now, my primary job hazard is that I speak with young people about moral issues. I teach religion at the college-level, where questions of right and wrong are the basis of discussion. In other words, my job offers a prime viewing spot for how youngsters navigate their moral landscape.
From being immersed in this supposedly amoral melting pot, here is what I've found: Brooks is right that many college-aged individuals do not have a traditional framework for tackling morality. Many are not immersed in religious traditions; few have taken ethics or philosophy courses.
That said, they are far from impotent when it comes to discussing right and wrong. First, they are deeply curious. They want to know what it means to live a good life. They want to know how to better our world. So while they may not be immersed in traditional moral frameworks, young people still invest themselves in moral questions.
Moreover, when they engage ethical questions, they have a tendency to think in incredibly creative ways because their perspectives have not been tainted by outside sources like philosophy or religion. That grants them a certain kind of innovation, though it also means they need to engage more traditional sources if they want to communicate with other generations for whom they are authoritative.
Second, as Brooks points out, young people have a tendency to be less judgmental and more empathic towards perspectives that differ from their own. This is not a bad thing. A comment like, "Who am I to judge?" shows an awareness that people do not make choices in a vacuum. They realize that violent upbringings or peaceful ones, sound school systems or dysfunctional ones, friends, money and opportunity all influence individuals. That awareness makes young adults less judgmental, but it does not make them morally illiterate. Instead, they base their beliefs in different sources, in compassion, psychology and lived experience instead of abstract thought.
Of course, it's no surprise that young adults are crafting moral models differently than their elders when vitriol taints our moral climate. One need only look to recent words spoken by politicians or, dare I say it, op-ed writers to see that. Young people watch these leaders, and they're disheartened. They see themselves surrounded by a Venus flytrap of toxic judgmentalism that older adults feed as if they were Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Meanwhile, young adults see this kind of morality failing them. They see judgment trumping cooperation and resulting economic instability. Now wonder they're searching for a better way forward.
Of course, it is a timeless truth that every older generation thinks the younger one inheriting their legacy will destroy it. Whether there is any truth in this, I cannot say, as it is impossible to measure morality the way you would a cup of sugar. But what is clear is that young adults refuse to live in the black-and-white world painted by older generations and they have good reason to because it has not served them well. Perhaps, then, their morality is less grey than it is pink, purple and aqua. And maybe a little color, at this stage, is a good thing.
Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio lectures at Yale University on theology and the Harry Potter series and writes on the intersection of religion and popular culture. She is also an Episcopal priest and certified life coach.