Thursday, 22 November 2007
Why do Young People Think Morality is Private?
As far as I know this is a phenomenon going back to the the 1960s when student demonstrations might feature slogans about the privacy of morality. This week when teaching Hume in an ethics class, I was inevitably faced with a student who believed that morality is just a matter of individual choice. I can give a political example from British Liberal Democrat politics. That leaves the question of how far the same thing turns up in other political traditions, I can only guess that it does in some form. The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students wing in Britain did mention this privacy of morality in a motion to the party conference once. I've occasionally had frustrating conversations in the past with people who think that morality is just asserting an opinion and that there is nothing to discuss. If that were true there would be no moral philosophy. That attitude did appear in academic philosophy for a period in the 20th Century when it was though that Moral Philosophy could only refer to subjective opinion in substance and language or logic in form. That partly rested on a one sided reading of Hume. There is something else there. One aspect of this is a clearly a confusion between issues of right to privacy and issues of morality. This confusion may arise from conservatives who want to interfere in privacy with regard to consenting adult sexual relations and consuming drugs. But there also seems to be a solipsism of adolescence in which things that affect our inner choices and intimate relations are seen as purely subjective. What I said in class was that people may have different moral opinions but they can agree that certain areas have moral significance, and discuss issues in those areas. The discussion is a form of communication and agreement in itself, because something has to be agreed in order to have any discussion. Adolescent solipsism may be putting it harshly. In adolescence it is important to form morally charged views in an autonomous manner, which may lead to a somewhat solipsistic attitude. This emphasis on subjectivity does have some dangers. This is subjectivity in the most gestural sense, not in the sense of a rich description of subjective consciousness. These attitudes can persist, undermining public civic discussion of important issues. There ought to be ways in which teenagers can learn something about discussing moral issues and the importance of discussion, even where opinions differ.