Politics & Policy

Moral Abdication

The withdrawal from any kind of judgment is yielding a generation of moral cripples.

My high-school-sophomore son was grumbling as he read his world-history textbook. He pointed me to this sentence about the encounter between European and Mesoamerican civilizations.

The American Indian societies had many religious ideas and practices that shocked Christian observers, and aspects of their social and familial arrangements clashed with European sensibilities . . . 

#ad# The text, World Civilizations: The Global Experience by Peter N. Stearns et al, was a little oblique about the nature of those ideas and practices. It mentioned human sacrifice but then rushed to add that “many of those who most condemned human sacrifice, polygamy, or the despotism of Indian rulers were also those who tried to justify European conquest and control, mass violence, and theft on a continental scale.”

The authors clearly wish to avoid the unpleasant details of Indian practices in their rush to condemn European depredations. A curious student would have to discover on his own that the Aztecs themselves claimed to have ritually sacrificed 80,400 people over the course of four days at the rededication of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán in 1487. While this was probably bragging, historian Victor Davis Hanson estimates that at least 20,000 victims were sacrificed yearly. Most were slaves, criminals, debtors, children, and prisoners of war — the Aztecs fought to capture, not kill, so as to provide a steady stream of sacrifices. These were bloody and brutal, with the victim’s chest being sliced open and the still-beating heart pulled from the body.

When the topic of human sacrifice was broached in the classroom, my son reported that none of his classmates was comfortable condemning the practice as immoral. “It was their culture,” his classmates said. And it’s wrong to impose your values on someone else’s culture.

This is not a fluke. In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith and his co-authors recount the results of their decade-long study of a representative sample of Americans aged 18–23. Through in-depth interviews, they examined their subjects’ lives and concluded that an alarming percentage of young people are highly materialistic, commitment averse, disengaged from political and civic life, sexually irresponsible, often heavily intoxicated, and morally confused. In fact, the authors contend, they lack even the vocabulary to think in moral terms.

The products of a culture that dares not condemn even human sacrifice for fear of transgressing multicultural taboos, these young people are morally adrift.

Six out of ten told the authors that morality is a “personal choice,” like preferring long or short hair. “Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion.” One young woman, a student at an Ivy League college, explained that while she doesn’t cheat, she is loath to judge others who do. “I guess that’s a decision that everyone is entitled to make for themselves. I’m sort of a proponent of not telling other people what to do.” A young man offered that “a lot of the time it’s personal. It changes from person to person. What you may think is right may not necessarily be right for me, understand? So it’s all individual.” Forty-seven percent of the cohort agreed that “morals are relative, there are not definite rights and wrongs for everybody.”

It goes beyond cheating or failing to give to charity. One young man who stressed “everyone’s right to choose” was pressed about whether murder would be such a choice. He wasn’t sure. “I mean, in today’s society, sure, like to murder someone is just ridiculous. I don’t know. In some societies, back in time, maybe it’s a good thing.”

The irony is that this supposed reluctance to make moral judgments is itself a moral posture. The young people in the study, like the authors of my son’s textbook, and much of the American establishment, believe that it is morally wrong to judge people harshly. (Except perhaps if it’s Western civilization in the dock.)

My son was most exasperated by the textbook’s suggestion that Western civilization’s response to other cultures was “complex” and that this was probably just as true of Chinese, Persians, and others. No, he protested, the only civilization that is self-critical at all is our own. Other world civilizations continue to express pride and even arrogance about their own histories.

Those who resist the self-flagellation that travels under the name multiculturalism are accused of chauvinism. But the withdrawal from any kind of judgment is yielding a generation of moral cripples.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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