Lost in Transaction

adam smith

Morality has several meanings. The one most often invoked is a set of rules about right and wrong; what actions are the right ones to take according to the rules of one’s society, family, business or whatever institution in which the actions are situated. Philosophers have forever struggled to ground these rules in universal terms, but without success. Short of universality, moral rules provide structure and security in these institutions. Without these rules to guide behavior, societies exhibit anarchistic patterns ruled by dominating forces.

A recent oped piece by David Brooks discussed a study of the place of morals in the lives of young Americans. It's another winner by Brooks. The researchers, led by an eminent sociologist, Christian Smith, found them largely missing, a result that Brooks found depressing. So do I. The study, begun in 2008, interviewed a sample of 230 young adults about morality in their lives, what they thought about it, what kinds of moral rules guided their actions, etc. The findings are recounted in a just published book, “Lost in Translation.” The publishers description includes some of the key findings:

Smith identifies five major problems facing very many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. The trouble does not lie only with the emerging adults or their poor individual decisions but has much deeper roots in mainstream American culture--a culture which emerging adults have largely inherited rather than created.

Brooks’ oped piece highlights a few key finding from the book. (I have not read it, but surely will.)

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.” . . . “Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).”

Why stunned? I find these results completely consistent with the narcissism that shows up in the contemporary culture. The centrality of the ego dominates everything else. There is little moral context in the marketplace. People, especially the younger members of society, are bombarded with messages that it is ‘good” to consume. The economy depends on it. Even the political tunes imply a morality to consumption. If consumption creates job and lessens the burden on the unemployed, isn’t it a good thing to do. Sounds like a moral push to me.

There is no morality in the market. And the market is the dominant symbol in America today. Robert Heilbroner, the eminent American economic historian wrote in 1993, “A general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.” The market represents the ultimate in personal choice. Perhaps half of the adult population support freer and freer markets, meaning more and more unbound, unregulated choice. Any rules that exist are internal, based on their own preferences. So if asked to explain how they make choices, morally driven or otherwise, it is not surprising to me that the explanations point to some inner sense of feeling good, feeling right, or feeling comfortable.

Inherent moral feelings that might arise from empathetic relationships are inhibited by the shallowness of social interactions. The connection of empathy and morality goes back to Adam Smith (pictured above). In his massive work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that preceded the better known, The Wealth of Nations, Smith argues that morality springs from the social context of human beings. Humans posses both a self interest and a caring for others, an empathetic side of their nature. As people are socialized during the passage to adulthood, they embody behavioral norms that spring from these empathetic, protective emotions. Observers of these norms, at some point, will label them as moral rules because they appear to dictate right actions routinely. Smith observed that we feel happy when others do, sad when other do, agonize when we see harm being done, etc. He anticipated by several centuries the discovery of mirror neurons which are thought to do just as he described.

The Smith who performed the study might do well to read the other Smith’s work. It would make much sense of the findings, but it would not change the apprehension that the results create. Without rules to guide behavior, leaving all choice to individual feelings, preference, values or whatever, we would soon devolve into the Hobbesian “state of nature” wherein human behavior becomes little different from the other animals that share the earth with us. Fortunately, we have all sorts of rules and enforcement mechanisms that are embedded in the culture to divert us from that fate. The part of the study findings that indicated that the young lack specific moral rules is disturbing, but that they lack understanding of the meaning of morality is more ominous. The societal cultural structure of norms, tacit and explicit, must be continuously re-embedded through everyday activities. If these activities lack even the idea of morality, much less specific rules, the societal structure will eventually collapse into some form of anarchy, setting civilization back on its heels. I may sound excessively concerned but these findings suggest that the concept of progress, the continuous improvement of the human condition, may be turning back on itself.