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I’m sure a few of you have read this Dennis Prager piece, Why Young Americans Can’t Think Morally on NRO, or have otherwise read about the study of Millenials’ moral thinking he’s referring to. Bottom line for Prager: no belief in God, no morality beyond emotivism, and so the increase in moral incoherence revealed by the study has necessarily come with the increase of secularism we’ve also seen. Here are the money quotes:

A vast number of American young people do not even ask whether an action is right or wrong. The question would strike them as foreign. Why? Because the question suggests that there is a right and wrong outside of themselves. And just as there is no God higher than them, there is no morality higher than them, either.

Forty years ago, I began writing and lecturing about this problem. It was then that I began asking students if they would save their dog or a stranger first if both were drowning. The majority always voted against the stranger — because, they explained, they loved their dog and they didn’t love the stranger.

Without God and Judeo-Christian religions, what else is there?

Well, I tried out the experiment with one of my classes. A student had to have had a real pet sometime in their lives (fish obviously do not count, and cats barely) to vote, and the result: 11-8 in favor of the pets!

Discussion revealed that few students were willing to defend their choice for the pet, and that some of them seemed to confuse my question of moral responsibility—what should you do—with a question of prediction—what do you think you would do. But this confusion of course tends to vindicate Prager’s case that this generation’s “moral reasoning” is actually reasoning about feelings. And no students objected with verve or emotion to the scandalous victory of the pro-pet side.

Only three moral arguments were put forward, by three students.

1.) The pet is a member of my family. The stranger is not.

2.) By raising the pet, I have acquired responsibility for it, and must protect it. Not so with the stranger.

3.) Natural Rights Reasoning does not require me to save another person’s life, especially given any level of risk to my own.

(The class is an American Politics one where I’ve briefly set forth the a) purely Natural Rights Reasoning (NRR) and the b) more theistic thinking—such as revealed by Congress’ additions and Hamilton’s “The Farmer Refuted”—that both and often inter-mixedly go into the Declaration.  So these kids have heard me say a little about what  the “pure”—as in purified of reliance upon theism— NRR might be in my view, whose outlines I derive from Michael Zuckert.)

The poverty of moral reasoning revealed by the first two answers is fairly evident. The third ducks the issue in a way by acting as if NRR is all the moral reasoning there is; but as far as it goes, it is correct.

All of this should be very shocking and worrisome—I confess I find myself sort of used to it, and perhaps unable to fully admit to myself how screwed-up/emotivist so many of the people I work with and teach really are.

I’ll close however, on a Declaration-related point. Here’s one of the many fine passages I’ve come across in reading the new Wilson Carey McWilliams’ books, this one from The Democratic Soul :

Liberal political philosophy, in the tradition of Hobbes and Locke, had no difficulty in demonstrating that self-interested human beings, exposed to the insecurities of the “state of nature,” have every reason to make the promises necessary to make civil society. Once civil order has been established, however, the reasons for keeping one’s promises are much less compelling. In fact, self-seeking individuals are bound to conclude that, in theory, it is desirable to be able to break one’s promises while one’s fellows keep theirs, reclaiming one’s natural liberty while enjoying the advantages of civil society.

from the essay “Religion and the American Founding”

P.S. I’ve now tried the Pet Test on another section of the class, and am happy to report an 18-to-1 victory for saving the human stranger.

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