Responding to Christian Smith: Moral Relativity and a Third Way

This is Part 2 in a 5-Part Response to Christian Smith’s Book: Lost in Transition

Christian Smith begin his critical first chapter on morals by saying:

“We began our exploration of some of the more unsettling aspects of contemporary emerging adult life by focusing on the question of morality, moral beliefs and moral reasoning. How do emerging adults think about morality?  How do they know what is moral?  How do they make decisions? Where do they think moral rights and wrongs, goods and bad, even come from? What is the source or basis of morality?  And how important is it to emerging adults to choose what is morally good?”

Most emerging adults are both morally individualistic and morally relativistic; that is, though they may personally believe something is wrong for them, it may not be wrong for everyone.  Many believe if something is “right” a situation was or will be improved by the decision made. Which leads to the fact that some compromise their own moral beliefs if something will get them ahead in life or will make them happy.  Surprisingly many also operate morally through rules and laws, often not questioning authority; that is, if something is illegal, it is wrong, not because it is inherently wrong. Therefore, if stealing was legal, it would be morally right. Finally though many can name examples of extreme moral dilemmas (eg: whether to murder or rape) few of them could name or recognize moral dilemmas in their own lives.

This first section is fundamental to the rest of issues presented in the book, as it turns out all the other sections lead back to one underlying dilemma, morals and ethics on the one hand, but a deficient or simply missing ability to reason on the other.   Without an ability to critically think about moral issues, emerging adults will be left with puzzling life problems they are unable to acceptably answer (that is, their logic is flimsy and quickly shredded), as well as an inability to exist in a society that pulls together a diversity of beliefs and viewpoints.  (case in point: the current contraception ruling). It should be clear that teaching reasoning skills does not mean advocating for a particular agenda, and that holding certain ethical beliefs also does not mean agreeing at every point.

There are a lot of ways to respond to this chapter, for example going through and answering any of the questions proposed by the introductory quotation. ( Trust me, it is a delightful thought experiment to ask yourself why you believe what you believe, and to discover what ways you are inconsistent in your own thoughts).  However, I’d like to respond with the current way that I work through difficult issues.  I call it the Third Way.

First I ask myself what framework and definition an issue is being considered under.  Second, I examine both the underlying assumptions (and often the logical fallacies) and attempt to follow through on the offered logic will take me.  Finally I re-frame the issue based on what I’ve uncovered and attempt to arrive a different solution.

I have started calling this the third way since generally when I am faced with a moral decision (and often any confusing decision, moral or otherwise) it appears that there are only two choices.  Should I choose black, or white?  It is necessary through thought, research, and discussion with peers and sages to search for what other options are possible. Then, I adjust my action and thinking.

There are rarely complete about-faces in this process.  I don’t find that I start out believing one thing is wholly right, and end believing it is wholly wrong.  Instead, gradations appear where before there were none at all.  This can be a very frustrating process, prior to examining an issue there were just those two answers, afterward there isn’t really just a third way, but often a fourth, fifth, sixth and so on.   This is the type of nuanced thinking I believe we must foster in emerging adults, one which believes that there are deep components to all decisions in our lives which require examination and often (polite) debate.


Author: Beth M

I love new ideas & information, connecting people, and discovering New England adventures.

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