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How emerging adults think about morality

Every year around this time Taylor University where I teach and work with the Center for Ethics holds what we call Colleagues College, two days when the faculty gets together to learn about some aspect of teaching in a Christian liberal arts university. This year we are focusing on the characteristics of the group that sociologist have begun to call emerging adults. Emerging adults are people between about 18 and 30 who have become somewhat independent of their parents, but have not yet taken on the adult responsibilities of marriage, parenthood and settled careers. Most traditional college students fall in this group, as do many in graduate school and others not in school. We are looking at what we can learn from the sociologic research that will help us understand our students better.

In connection with this I have been reading two books, Lost in Transition by Christian Smith and Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adults by David Setran and Chris Kiesling. My focus has been what they have to say about how emerging adults think about morality and ethics and how we can best impact that. Any of us who desires to communicate about bioethics to those in this very formative time in their lives can learn from what those studying this group have to tell us.

Smith’s book relates the concerns that he and his fellow researchers have about some of the problems they have found in their sociological research on emerging adults. They have conducted in depth interviews with a large representative cohort of young people starting when they were in their teens and following them up into the emerging adult age group. One of their major concerns is what they have found about how those in this group think about morality. Their concern is not so much that many live immoral lives (although that may also be true), but that there are real problems with how many in this group think about morality. They have found that “emerging adult thinking about morality … is not particularly consistent, coherent, or articulate” and that the type of thinking represented in the interviews commonly was “unable to result in good moral decision making and a morally coherent life.” They suspect that this is a result of their being the product of an educational system that avoided talking about controversial issues that might offend someone and which taught them by example to ignore such issues and pretend they will go away.

One of the characteristics of moral thinking in a majority of their subjects was moral individualism. 60% said that “morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision.” Although any of them would not go as far as supporting full-fledged relativism, they understood this to mean that a person’s moral views should be kept private and that we are “not to judge anyone else on moral matters.”

Their thinking about what their moral beliefs were grounded in or based on was inconsistent and at times contradictory. 34% had no idea. 40% referred to what others would think of them, 60% referred to a consequentialist idea of whether something improved people’s situation, 53% said that anything that hurt other people was a moral violation, 40% referred to God’s commands or other religious knowledge, and 23% referred to obeying laws of the land. Many cited more than one of these even though they might be conflicting. Those who strongly expressed moral individualism might also express moral sources related to social relations. Those who referred to God’s commands might also express strong belief in moral individualism and consequentialism.
When asked how they would decide if they didn’t know what was right or wrong many said they would decide based on what would make them feel happy. No matter what else they said 72% described their moral knowledge and behaviors as based on instinct.

If their findings are correct, emerging adults are a group that has significantly problems thinking clearly about morality and being able to enter into a discussion of moral issues. Setran and Kiesling suggest that we will be most effective in helping emerging adults with their moral formation by helping them to be a part of a morally authoritative community that fosters closeness of relationship around a set of shared values. They suggest that in Christian settings it is appropriate to take a virtue ethics approach that is focused on development of the character that will prepare is for the role we will play eternally in God’s kingdom. This can help emerging adults focus on a divine moral order which is outside of themselves and see moral formation as character transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit cultivated by moral practices and guided by well-reasoned moral thinking based in God-given moral truth.

I find this an exciting challenge for those of us engaged in helping students learn how to think and act along moral lines that will bring honor and glory to God.

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