Ruminations on Millennials – The Case of Moral Arrogance

martin_luther_king_jr-_and_lyndon_johnson

By Daniel Tippens

Please note that the ideas presented below are things that the author feels strongly on, but on which he hasn’t fully formed an opinion or argument. This is meant to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

We often portray our moral heroes with photographs such as the one accompanying this post. They appear to be both in deep thought and deeply concerned as their eyes remain fixed, their attention clearly turned toward their thoughts. Those same eyes reveal the effects of a mind constantly burdened with concerns for others and ruminations on what he or she ought to do. It is this notion of ruminating on what we ought to do that concerns me most. It concerns me because I don’t see many people in my generation (twenty-something millennials) experiencing moral uncertainty, or at least not enough. To be clear, this does *not* mean that I think other groups of people don’t also fail to experience moral uncertainty. I only focus on my generation, because that is the one I am a part of and feel most qualified to speak on.

When we ruminate on what we ought to do morally, we are frequently trying to resolve our moral uncertainty. Moral uncertainty plagues us when we have all of the relevant non-normative facts about a situation at hand, but we still don’t know what we ought to do. Here is a comic-book example to articulate the point:

The Green Goblin held a train full of children in one hand and Mary Jane (the woman Spiderman loved) in the other. Both the train and Mary Jane were suspended over hundreds of feet of open air. Peter knew all of the relevant physical facts about gravity and biological creatures to know that if the Green Goblin were to release the kids or Mary Jane, all of the released parties would surely die. When the Green Goblin dropped both parties, Peter was uncertain about what to do. Was it better for him to save the woman he loves over saving the train full of kids? Or was it better for him to save the train full of kids over saving Mary Jane? Peter was morally uncertain.

This kind of situation happens to all of us in one form or another at various points in our lives. A woman finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. She finds out all of the non-normative facts about fetuses; how much pain they feel, when their hearts start beating, and how abortion procedures are performed. Still, she is uncertain about what to do. An account manager at a large corporation is told that unless he cooks the financial books and lies about the company’s revenue, his coworkers will lose their jobs, health benefits, and the stability in their lives. What ought he do? What would you do?

There is one thing to be pointed out right away, which I don’t want to dwell on for too long. In cases such as the ones mentioned above, the morally uncertain person is a virtuous one. His or her display of moral uncertainty in difficult situations reveals that the person has a genuine concern for how his actions affect others. He recognizes what is at stake in the situation – that people are inevitably going to suffer – and his uncertainty about what to do reveals that he really wants to choose the action that is most sensitive to how he will affect others. Call this concern for how one’s actions affect others a moral concern.

Conversely, were he not to feel moral uncertainty in these sorts of situations, it would reveal a lack of moral concern. There are two ways of failing to feel morally uncertain that would reveal a lack of moral concern. First, there is a failure to feel uncertainty because one feels morally confident. Given that the aforementioned kinds of situations are not straightforward, if one felt immediately morally confident, one’s moral arrogance would reveal a lack of reverence for how one’s actions affect the course of other people’s lives. We would likely ask ourselves with an air of disapproval, “Considering what was at stake in these situations, how could he be so certain, so quickly, about what to do?!

Second, there is a failure to feel uncertainty simply because one does not care about morality at all. One need not feel confident in order to fail to feel morally uncertain — one can simply shrug one’s shoulders when presented with the situation. Should such a careless agent need to act for some reason, then like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, he may simply flip a coin. His care about which action ought to be performed is as non-existent as the coin’s. Should he fail to experience moral uncertainty, because a lack of care, then it is analytically true that he displays a lack of moral concern.

Now, surely there are cases where a lack of moral uncertainty is not a vice, for there are some times when moral uncertainty is not necessary in a given situation, since we clearly know what we ought to do. Suppose you promise to help your friend move on Friday at 3 p.m. That time rolls around and you are lying in bed watching T.V. Should you continue watching T.V, or go help your friend? The answer is obvious: you should help your friend. Failing to be morally uncertain here wouldn’t say anything negative about your moral character. In fact being morally uncertain might actually be a vice. It might reveal that you value your selfish desires just as much as your promises to help your friends.

But when we have appropriately weighted the conflicting values that generate moral uncertainty, such as with Peter Parker, the woman considering getting an abortion, and the employee considering cooking the books, being morally uncertain shows one’s underlying virtuous character. One takes one’s moral actions and decisions very seriously.

Now let’s return to real life. Many of us want to be like our moral heroes. We want to be like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, fighting for equality and justice. There are, I think, at least two ways that we should try to emulate these moral idols. The first, is to adopt their moral aims. Adopting the belief that things like equality and justice are worth striving for and then valuing these things.

The second is to adopt their disposition to be morally uncertain, when it comes to achieving those aims. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi had to think very hard about what they ought to do, when their values for social equality and justice came into conflict with other moral values, such as violence and potential harm caused to others. These are not easy or straightforward questions. Should one achieve equality through non-violent means, which might take longer and allow for prolonged suffering for minorities, or should one use harmful means against others, but bring about better lives for minorities more quickly? Indeed, this plausibly falls under the classic conflict between utilitarian and deontological values. Do we do what we feel is our duty, or what will maximize happiness?

Even after MLK and Gandhi chose an action, there were likely times when they asked themselves, “Did I do the right thing?” They demonstrated their moral uncertainty not only prior to acting, but after acting. I find this to be worthy of deep respect and admiration. Their complete lack of moral arrogance and their adoption of moral uncertainty shows just how much they cared about these issues and the lives of the people involved.

I think my generation wants to be like MLK and Gandhi, I really do. But I fear that we have primarily only adopted one thing from these moral heroes – their aims. My generation wants to fight for things like social justice and equality, and this certainly is laudable.

But they don’t approach achieving these aims with great trepidation and moral uncertainty. Instead, I see moral arrogance. Suppose a child, Timmy, punched another boy, Greg, in the face as hard as he could. You ask him, “Why did you punch Greg?” Timmy responds, “Because Greg called me ‘stupid’!” This is a familiar situation that most parents will have to deal with at some point or another. Here, the child has not thought about what level of punishment or response is warranted, given a certain level of injustice. His default reaction was to punch Greg in the face, morally confident that this was the right thing to do.

A common parental thing to say would be something like this: “Timmy, someone doesn’t deserve to be punched in the face for calling you ‘stupid’.” The parent is trying to teach the child to start thinking about what levels of punishment are merited by different levels of injustice. The small injustice of somebody calling you “stupid” does not merit the level of punishment that a punch to the face delivers. The parent is hoping to start getting the child to feel less confident and more morally uncertain about what they ought to do, when somebody commits an injustice toward them. Should I punch him, or should I simply tell him how offensive his words can be? Which choice would be best for everyone?

This kind of moral confidence and lack of moral uncertainty is present in many millennials now, though not all of them, of course. Consider the difference in punishment merited from the injustice of a racist action as opposed to somebody being a racist person. A racist action is an action which had no mal-intent behind it, but is still racist, nonetheless. For example, say Vicki, ignorant of black history, says, “What’s up, my n-gger?” to the local bar’s bartender. Everybody in the bar knows that Vicki harbors no ill-will toward African Americans, she has many African American friends and wishes all the best for them. As a result, they might classify her action as racist, but still maintain that Vicki herself is not a racist person.

A racist person, by contrast, would be somebody who has underlying long-term beliefs about African Americans, and wants to see them treated unequally, something that manifests itself in his actions. He calls African Americans derogatory names, with clear indications of their mal-intent, revealing his underlying racist character.

Now, the injustice of being called the N-word by a racist person certainly warrants a different response from somebody who merely says the N-word, in the sense of performing a racist action. The racist action warrants some instructive response, “Vicki, you really shouldn’t say that word. It is very offensive to the African American community and causes various sorts of trauma to them.” You wouldn’t want Vicki to be fired from her job or to be publicly shamed.

A stronger response is clearly warranted for a racist person who uses the N-word. You wouldn’t lightly tell this person, “Hey, when you call somebody the N word it’s really offensive. Try not to say that word,” as you would Vicki. You might think that some sort of response, perhaps some kind of retributive punishment, is warranted. We might, for example, under the right circumstances, feel warranted in taking away the professorship of a racist person.

Unfortunately, my generation often condemns racist actions in the same manner one would a racist person. An isolated instance of a racist action is treated as deserving the sort of punishment we normally would reserve for a racist person. Punishments range from being fired from one’s job to social-media shaming, death threats, and more. This, to me, is reminiscent of Timmy. We lack a healthy moral uncertainty about what is the appropriate response to a certain level of injustice leveled. While Timmy punches a boy in the face for being called “stupid,” we get people fired, and publicly shame people for performing racist actions, such as Vicki’s.

I mentioned earlier that moral uncertainty can fail to arise in two ways, each of which showing a lack of concern for how one’s action affects others. One way was due to a lack of moral care. Some people just shrug their shoulders at moral questions and feel no moral uncertainty. This can’t be the reason for the millennials’ failure to experience moral uncertainty, because it is obvious they do care about the issues they speak about.

Instead, I see moral arrogance – obviously we are right to shame this person. The ends obviously justify the means. Or obviously this person deserves to be Twitter-shamed and fired from his job for his racist or sexist action. A job which, perhaps, has not only been sustaining him financially, but has also been the source of great satisfaction – the thing that has made this person’s life feel worthwhile. As you can see, these beliefs about what we ought to do are not obvious at all. They are complicated issues that should cause the virtuous person to experience dire moral uncertainty.

It is certainly plausible to think that a lack of moral uncertainty is a feature of youth generally as opposed to just millenials today. I’m sympathetic to this. But previous generations didn’t have as many eyes casting their gaze at them during their youth. As such, the stakes are higher, and we need to start a new paradigm, one which eschews our unwarranted moral confidence.

I want people to look back at the actions my generation took and see us as something akin to Martin Luther King or Gandhi. But in order for this to happen, we need to show that we take moral decisions seriously, something which is realized or manifested by moral uncertainty. I fear that we will be seen simply as a generation of Timmys.

Daniel Tippens is a research technician in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory and co-founder of The Electric Agora.

Categories: Essay

Tagged as: , , ,

37 Comments »

  1. Astro,

    Now I see what you meant re. the photo.

    Yeah unfortunately the MLK photo wasn’t featured when this post first went up. Odd.

    Like

  2. Daniel Tippens,

    Well, you’re generation hasn’t really done much to look back on, yet. Occupy WallStreet was interesting and worthwhile, but it didn’t really accomplish much. Helping to elect America’s first African-American president was arguably a good thing, but your generation was only a part of that mix. Re-channelling old rock songs into electronically enhanced pop songs has made some of you a great deal of money, but leaves many unimpressed. Redesigning the internet into the playing field for trolls and self-proclaimed visionaries has not been without it’s unhappy side-effects. The handful of people you’re age who go crazy and join ISIS are accomplishing something, but to the good.

    Let’s change direction there, because that deals with your main question.

    Aristotle wrote, “All love to know;” he should have written ‘people love to feel certain.’ From the ground we walk on to the most magnificent theories, from the airiest fantasies, to the tiny suspicions we have about what our neighbors are doing next door (‘I know they’re up to no good!’), we all want the feeling that our intuitions are justified, our education trustworthy, our political views unassailable, our aesthetic judgments not to be questioned. We want to be *right*!

    It takes a lot of experience, questioning, self-doubt, and a good dose of humility to say, ‘well, maybe not.’ That isn’t necessarily a function of age; many grow older but never wiser.

    It might be best not to identify with your ‘generation.’ The Baby Boomers – to whom the historical context granted the privilege of actually achieving original accomplishments in their youth (they wrote the rock songs your generation continues to regurgitate) – were actually a fluke. There had been similar generational watersheds in previous times, in previous countries; but most generations do not leave such marks on history AS a generation. Generally the processes of acculturation among overlapping generations mitigates against this.

    I was born in 1955. I’m usually identified as a Baby-Boomer, but that’s not how I experienced the world. By the time I was entering adulthood, the Cultural Revolution was over. The best my age group could come up with was Punk Rock. Otherwise, most of what we wanted to say had been said, most of what we wanted to do had been done, and by the time we were capable of flexing any social or cultural muscle – the ’80s – the game had been pretty much rigged, and we found ourselves competing with the rising young men and women born in the ’60s.

    History is always interesting, but never fair. My suggestion is: reflect on your generation but not be a part of it. Follow your thinking where it leads you, but always be prepared to be mistaken. Thinking individuals do not have the luxury of being always right, or even on the ‘right side’ of history, whatever that may be.

    Like

  3. EJWinner wrote:

    By the time I was entering adulthood, the Cultural Revolution was over. The best my age group could come up with was Punk Rock.

    ———————————–

    I have to strongly disagree with this. Punk was one of the crucial elements of what really was an ongoing revolution. Not just that, it was some of the best music made in the 70s and 80s. Just a few of the best:

    Iggy and the Stooges
    Patti Smith
    The Clash
    Bad Brains
    Black Flag
    Dead Kennedys
    X

    There are many more.

    Like

  4. “The handful of people you’re age who go crazy and join ISIS are accomplishing something, but to the good.” – Correction: The handful of people you’re age who go crazy and join ISIS are accomplishing something, but NOT to the good.

    DanK,

    As a former punk rocker myself, I’m certainly not saying anything disparaging! Some of my happiest memories involve concerts at CBGB’s in ’76.

    The Cultural Revolution was considered ongoing at the time, but was changing direction in a way leaving we younger siblings of the Boomers somewhat frustrated (and punk partly grew out of that frustration). Certainly the amount we could contribute was growing more limited every year, and remained largely determined by our elders.

    But isn’t that the point? The Baby Boomers raised considerable expectations about what could be accomplished by a generation; but isn’t history more usually a process of over-lapping eddies and undertows, rather than tidal waves? (And historical tidal waves are not always a good thing!) Sometimes our elders have it right, sometimes not; but listening to them is a good thing, and working with them a necessity to get anything done at all.

    Like

  5. I was born in 1946. My mother played the radio most days, so I got a steady dose of pop music from late 40’s into the early 50’s that way. I had an older brother who enjoyed Fats Domino and spent hours alone practicing on his acoustic guitar and teen angst. And, yes, he had a 57 Chevy. Aside from shooting him once with my bow and arrow (the arrow hit him square in the gut and fell harmlessly on its rubber tip to the ground), we only got into physical scrap when he threw a pillow at our phonograph and damaged my James Brown “Apollo” album. My younger brothers formed a local band and participated in battles bandwise in the 60’s. But I doubt Dan T had popular music in mind when he wrote this piece. Nevertheless, this touches upon ej’s point about “processes of acculturation among overlapping generations.” My father and mother came from large families with siblings of different ages. My father, for example, played with his second cousins, offspring of his oldest brother. I think family size plays a role in some of this. I had to look up gen Millennial and gen “X” a few years ago to get my bearings on this otherwise unremarkable distinction (not your primary concern with moral ambiguity, Dan T). I remember dancing to The Who’s “My Generation,” but only later in life did I really think much about the lyrics. Now, I get a good laugh when I hear it played for stuff like clothing commercials for Target.

    Like

  6. Oh, forgive me, I got caught up in my nostalgia, prompted I might add, by ej’s and Dan K’s preferences for pop music. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. A bit of serendipity: I had just finished reading Dan T’s piece and returned to a novel I’m reading where a Jesuit priest is counseling a young teen of the 1950’s fresh out of imprisonment in a reformatory for murdering a man. The priest at one point remarks to the teen, “One way a man untrivializes himself is to punch another man in the mouth. . . . You can’t doubt this, can you? I don’t like violence. . . . [But] I think a man’s ability to act in opposition to his tendencies in this direction can be a source of virtue, a statement of his character and forbearance.”

    [This provides a slightly different vantage than the lesson given by Timmy’s parent, but both have merit.]

    Anyway, the priest and the teen continue to converse in what appears a haphazard manner. At one point, the priest demands that the teen give a detailed account of the boots he’s wearing. The teen hasn’t given them much thought so the priest provides a very detailed description of the boots as if he were a shoemaker. They end as follows:

    Priest: “Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it.”
    Teen: “Quotidian.”
    Priest: “An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”

    Like

  7. I always wonder about use of terms like ‘millennials ‘ and ‘Generation X’.

    Do we really have to accept the classifications invented for us by the PR industry for us, the better to manipulate us.

    Otherwise, I really liked the article. Not sure what to think of it yet.

    Dan K, I like your list. I would add Ian Dury. There was a lot of important stuff happening at the same time and it seems am under recognised period.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I suppose I wonder about the empirical basis for these feelings, first. Are millennials morally arrogant? Is the basis of this belief solely based on the example you use, is there more rigor that I’m unaware of, or is this blog really more of a reflection on what I/you/one can do in order to be a better person?

    Another thought that comes to mind, especially in light of your example, is the difference between moral thought and politics. Your example between racist acts and racist character highlights this perfectly, I think. Politics deals with actions, accountability, transparency, and fairness. Morality deals with character, forgiveness, interpersonal relationships, and love. Politically speaking it doesn’t matter if the person you are against has good intents. In fact, you can turn that on its head and say — if they [i]really[/i] have good intents, then they’ll understand the necessity of political action, and concede that ground. Political action isn’t the sort of world where one can be filled with trepidation, fear, and trembling. It is the world [i]after[/i] one has made a decision. And I agree that one’s decision need not be one which was arrived at in a morally admirable way (though I think that doesn’t need to be the case), but that only highlights the difference between politics and ethics, in my view.

    And just because one is politically decisive doesn’t mean that they aren’t morally uncertain. It just means they recognize that politics and morality aren’t one, I’d say — there is clearly a relationship between the two, but they are not the same. And to treat them as the same is to handicap both, I think.

    Lastly, I’d steer clear of race politics to elucidate the core of your contemplation which seems to encourage us to be more reflective on morality. It’s just. . . seemingly very off from the thrust of your thesis. The transition there is awkward. It seems to me that we’re either secretly talking about race the entire time before that, in which case we should have a frank conversation about race rather than dress it up in philo-talk, or that the latter example throws off the original thesis so that we end up talking about race instead anyways. I suppose this fits in with my original critique, wondering about the empirical basis of your beliefs, but I thought I’d highlight it because while I don’t agree, at this time, that millennials are morally arrogant, I certainly believe that a call to contemplate our moral finitude is never out of bounds. 😉

    Like

  9. Dan T, on a more serious note, the fact that you raise these questions is good reason to suspect that you are closer to the truth when you write, “It is certainly plausible to think that a lack of moral uncertainty is a feature of youth generally as opposed to just millenials today. I’m sympathetic to this.” But you are mistaken in this: “But previous generations didn’t have as many eyes casting their gaze at them during their youth.” Broad cultural and historical accounts suggest otherwise, though technological advances and the speed with which information–regardless of its accuracy–gets exchanged today can create what seems at times like hysteria on the one hand and desensitization on the other. Each generation is a by-product of and response to those which precede it. I grew up without any strict generational identification other than a steady refrain from the previous that we didn’t appreciate the advantages that those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII had bestowed upon us. Much of this was true, but we also grew up during the Cold War and what seemed at the time as traumatic and widespread social unrest. So I’m hesitate to single out subsequent generations as somehow inferior to those that preceded them.

    Like

  10. Dantip, I’ll start with this concern that you have about your generation being too morally confident. While it may be admirable for you to have such sensitivity, I really do think that you’re over reacting. New generations under new circumstances, do naturally do things somewhat differently than previous ones, and this does seem to make us stronger. But let me assure you of one thing. My own generation (I was late 60s born) would have confidently taken your social media, and destroyed others no less haphazardly. In support of David Ottlinger, I did recently mention that his/your generation will end up bitching out later ones, just as certainly as past ones did. That you’re already bitching out your own may be a reflection of the company that you keep? If you recall, I got a kick out of Massimo’s “trigger warning” post at SciSal at least as much as anyone, though I’m convinced that this is simply normal stuff — your generation will make its way just fine.

    I do consider this post to be a wonderful one however, and especially given the way that it ties in with your last. There you asked about the morality of “evil thoughts,” and I responded that I’d love to answer, though you’d need to first provide what you consider to be a useful definition for the term “morality.” Furthermore I did present my own “empathy and theory of mind qualia” definition for your consideration. I wonder if you’ll now address this morality definition?

    It seems to me that it does once again get pretty close to what you’re talking about. We presume that Peter Parker’s girlfriend would make him far more happy than an anonymous bus load of children, though he does still have his own morality to condend with. This fights him in the sense that he has greater empathy for larger quantities of innocent people, and he also knows how harshly he would be judged if he chose to selfishly save his girlfriend (through ToM qualia). Though the writers may do all they can to suggest that this could actually go either way, it’s just a tease. Peter Parker shall save the kids, and so morally distinguish himself from the Green Goblin. So you see, morality does seem to function as a social tool from which we influence the behavior of others, for the purpose of moderating their natural selfishness. I don’t know of a more prominent meme.

    Like

  11. Hi Dan, it was interesting to think about the different classes of moral concern/contemplation, and I think for the most part I would agree with them. That said…

    I am uncertain if, statistically speaking, millenials suffer more from moral arrogance than any other generation, rather than that quality being more obvious for this generation because everyone’s opinions are being broadcast more openly and in directed ways. It seems to me even prior generations tended toward moral arrogance. How that is reflected/manifested in action may be different between generations, though I think the problem of inappropriate activity/reaction is the same.

    Also, a slight quibble on definition. The person who is not a racist and uses a word that is felt to be racist by others (perhaps due to a long history of such use) is not committing a racist action. A faux pas definitely, ignorant perhaps, thoughtless arguable, but not racist since that implies a specific meaning for the word which the person did not intend and in any case (philosophically speaking) the word does not intrinsically hold. That latter point is shown as certain words, including the one you mentioned, are allowed to be used by some and not by others. I think this attachment of moral condemnation to specific word use is not helpful (not to say I am blaming you) and a product of the less useful portions of legitimate civil rights struggles. I preferred Lenny Bruce’s concept of detoxifying epithets (removing the poison), rather than solidifying them into icons of pain.

    Like

  12. Dan, you observe millenials’ resistance to detached, objective ethical analysis (ie, their confidence, certainty or arrogance) and, in agreement, I detect an incipient Red Guardism. But isn’t it a product of the widespread idea of the coming eco-catastrophe that has been poured into the dreams of children? Surely they grow up demanding a draconian severance with hypocrisy, asserted with the passion of youth. It goes hand-in-hand with veganism and greenism. Millennials are millenarians.

    Like

  13. Thw premise here does not seem to hold for the young people that I know right now. They don’t appear to have any greater moral certainly than any other generation so far as I can tell.

    Let me give a case study. A journalist working for the state broadcaster tweets an opinion about the dreadful things that soldiers often do during wars. He does so on Anzac Day, our annual commemoration of those who fought and died for Australia.

    A News Corp pundit organises a twitter mob with the express purpose putting pressure on the communications minister to have the journalist sacked. The minister buckles and has the journalist sacked.

    This appears to be the sort of thing you are talking about. But the pundit in question is in his fifties, as is the spineless minister (now our Prime Minister)

    So this is not something confined to the young and it might take some research to discover whether it is predominantly the young who do this.

    Incidentally the News Corp pundit who organised the twitter mob considers himself a champion of free speech and often writes of his disdain for Twitter and twitter mobs.

    Like

  14. Perhaps we did not set them such a good example as our parents set for us. It looks that way. Or perhaps we are back to a discussion of the growth of scientism and its associated philosophobia and their effect on society. Or, maybe we are back to the inability of professional philosophy to settle the problems of ethics and make a clear statement for our guidance. The issues all seems to be closely connected, and for me this would be why philosophy is so desperately important.

    Like

  15. DanT – I think you’ve been fairly silent on recent topics of millenial mores, and am wondering if you have any relevant experience such as seeing anything in the upbringing and environment of your generation that might contribute to such peculiarities.

    Over a year ago, I went fishing for such instances in a forum with a high proportion of recent (mostly American) college graduates; here it is with the discussion that ensued:

    http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/laj/irrationalism_on_campus/

    Like

  16. As a newspaper editor, a la Brandenberg as the Supreme Court’s basis for First Amendment defamation suits, I distinguish between how I might “shame” public, and private, figures.

    Dan K: Schnittke was alive until 1996. Who needs punk rock?

    Like

  17. Hi everyone!

    Wow, great comments. Thanks a lot for taking the time to carefully respond to the piece. Before I go on with my replies, let me just draw everyone’s attention to this, which was stated at the start of the essay, as a prefatory note: “Please note that the ideas presented below are things that the author feels strongly on, but on which he hasn’t fully formed an opinion or argument. This is meant to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.”

    That said…

    Hi Hal,

    I’m actually going to write a follow up piece soon with some of my upbringing experiences (and educational experiences) which I think have contributed the the adoption of MLK and Ghandi’s moral aims but not their disposition to be morally uncertain, within people my age.

    Hi Robin,

    Let me just draw attention to a couple of things I said in the essay which I think have my thoughts on your comment stated clearly:

    “It is this notion of ruminating on what we ought to do that concerns me most. It concerns me because I don’t see many people in my generation (twenty-something millennials) experiencing moral uncertainty, or at least not enough. To be clear, this does *not* mean that I think other groups of people don’t also fail to experience moral uncertainty. I only focus on my generation, because that is the one I am a part of and feel most qualified to speak on.”

    “It is certainly plausible to think that a lack of moral uncertainty is a feature of youth generally as opposed to just millenials today. I’m sympathetic to this. But previous generations didn’t have as many eyes casting their gaze at them during their youth. As such, the stakes are higher, and we need to start a new paradigm, one which eschews our unwarranted moral confidence.”

    Hi Dbholmes,

    re. the first half of your comment about previous generations, see my two quotes relayed to Robin above.

    re. the second half of your comment about racist actions: I actually agree with you. I was trying to be charitable to those who do think that “Racist actions” are, well, racist. In doing so, I was hoping to be able to offer a criticism of their behavior while still working within their language of “racist actions.” I also think that actions with no ill-will behind them shouldn’t be classified as “racist,” especially given all of the semantic baggage that comes along with the word “racist.” The term “racist” almost immediately invites someone to infer things about a person’s character, which doesn’t seem to be warranted in the case of actions or speech acts with no ill-will behind them.

    Hi Philosopher Eric,

    “Dantip, I’ll start with this concern that you have about your generation being too morally confident. While it may be admirable for you to have such sensitivity, I really do think that you’re over reacting. ”

    I don’t think I’m overreacting considering how people of my generation are, in many cases, causing unwarranted harm to many people. I’ll link you to one Ted talk which helps to articulate just one area where harm is being done. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAIP6fI0NAI

    “That you’re already bitching out your own may be a reflection of the company that you keep?”

    In a word, no. I don’t keep company with the people I am criticizing. However, I frequently interact with them, inevitably, because they populate the majority (I think) of twenty-somethings, and I’ve seen first hand in conversation and on the internet amongst my peers, the kind of lack of moral uncertainty I’m describing.

    “If you recall, I got a kick out of Massimo’s “trigger warning” post at SciSal at least as much as anyone, though I’m convinced that this is simply normal stuff — your generation will make its way just fine.”

    It may be normal stuff, but I find it objectionable. If being morally certain is the norm, calling attention to it is the first step to trying to change that.

    Hi Thomas Jones,

    “Each generation is a by-product of and response to those which precede it. I grew up without any strict generational identification other than a steady refrain from the previous that we didn’t appreciate the advantages that those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII had bestowed upon us. ”

    I agree with you in many ways with what you say here. I’m writing another piece on exactly this, actually.

    Hi Hux,

    “I suppose I wonder about the empirical basis for these feelings, first. Are millennials morally arrogant? Is the basis of this belief solely based on the example you use, is there more rigor that I’m unaware of, or is this blog really more of a reflection on what I/you/one can do in order to be a better person?”

    The example I gave was just one. I don’t think one has to look far to find more examples out there. Media outlets are covering them frequently now a days.

    The essay also has the byproduct benefit, I think, of allowing us to reflect on how we can be better people, sure 🙂

    “Politics deals with actions, accountability, transparency, and fairness. Morality deals with character, forgiveness, interpersonal relationships, and love.”

    I don’t think this is right, at least in how ethics and moral inquiry is done today amongst professional philosophers. Ethics deals with accountability, moral responsibility, and fairness all the time. This comprises the bulk of the discussion. Though obviously ethics also deals with character, forgiveness and the other things you mentioned, as evidenced in the virtue ethics literature.

    “And just because one is politically decisive doesn’t mean that they aren’t morally uncertain. It just means they recognize that politics and morality aren’t one, I’d say — there is clearly a relationship between the two, but they are not the same. And to treat them as the same is to handicap both, I think.”

    Interesting thought. Can you say more on this for me?

    Hi Ejwinner,

    I like most of your comment. Not too much to add. Except one clarification: “It takes a lot of experience, questioning, self-doubt, and a good dose of humility to say, ‘well, maybe not.’ That isn’t necessarily a function of age; many grow older but never wiser.”

    I’m open to this. As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m just commenting on my generation because that’s the one I’m a part of. 🙂

    Looking forward to replies, all, and thanks for taking the time to read this essay and helping to think through these issues!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. “The example I gave was just one. I don’t think one has to look far to find more examples out there. Media outlets are covering them frequently now a days.”

    Most of what I’ve seen in the media with respect to my generation hasn’t really been empirically based, but has just been a general lament or feeling. On the whole it came across as unsympathetic and somewhat timeless (Kids these days! The world will End! etc.) So, by that standard at least, I would say I remain unconvinced. Very little actual empirical work is done to ascertain the sociological characteristics of any generation whenever I read a media article about any generation [whatever might be after us, then millenials, X’ers, baby-boomers, the greatest generation, etc.]. Journalists don’t print a methodology with articles. They don’t show us their work. They just lament this that or the other. And it strikes me as being rather unhelpful, too, because it seems odd that we can say that an entire generation even has this that or the other character. It seems like an overgeneralization. You can speak of historical events that people in various age-brackets go through, but even then — Occupy, as another posted had mentioned, was inter-generational. It was not just a youth movement, though youths were the primary participants. The election of President Obama was largely credited to his targeting the youth vote, but it’s not like we single-handedly voted in the first black President. Nor is it fair to lump everyone together of a particular generation because we have so much more than our generation that defines who we are. A white, wealthy, East Coast, Ivy-League millenial is different from a black, poor, southern, State-school millenial. [just to put some extremes together] Becoming politically aware in a post-Soviet world, Iraq War I, Bush’s rise to power, the patriot act, 9/11, Iraq war II, the first black President, the financial meltdown, the Citizen’s United supreme court decision, Occupy Wall Street, fighting in Syria, the drone war program, the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter will sit differently with these two supposed persons.

    So much so that it seems especially difficult to then also be able to fairly say that they are somehow both morally arrogant. How so? What is the empirical basis of this claim?

    “I don’t think this is right, at least in how ethics and moral inquiry is done today amongst professional philosophers. Ethics deals with accountability, moral responsibility, and fairness all the time. This comprises the bulk of the discussion. Though obviously ethics also deals with character, forgiveness and the other things you mentioned, as evidenced in the virtue ethics literature.”

    That’s true. That’s not how I mean it, though. Clearly both politics and ethics are axiological. And ethics certainly deals with accountability, moral responsibility, and fairness. I think it might be clearer to say that there’s a difference between moral accountability, moral responsibility, and moral fairness and political accountability, political responsibility, and political fairness. But more on that in the next part.

    “Interesting thought. Can you say more on this for me?”

    Sure.

    I don’t pretend to know the precise difference, so I can’t lay out a theory for you. I prefer to go by way of the particulars than generalities. So let’s take some simple actions: Public shaming, killing, coercion, the acquisition of someone else’s goods, lying, and manipulation. If we take some moral calculus — be it some variant of consequentialism, deontology, or virtue-ethics — then the likelihood for each of these actions as coming out at the end of that calculus as good acts is low. We can come up with exceptions to test our moral intuitions, or perhaps we go against the grain of popular opinion, but on the whole these are generally understood to at least be morally questionable acts, even if we might argue in their favor under certain circumstances.

    In politics this just isn’t so. These aren’t questionable. These are the tools of the trade. And just in the manner that it would inhibit one in repairing their car if they are constantly wondering if they should be using a wrench, so it would inhibit a political actor if they are constantly wondering if they should be using any of these methods. This is why I say that politics comes *after* moral deliberation, in some sense — you have to ask yourself, before becoming a political actor, if the ends really are worth it. Even MLK is far from guiltless in this manner. He understood what he was doing, and he did it very well. Though he was a moral giant in addition to being a good political operator, he was also a good political operator. And I’ve been lead to believe he’d often wonder about the means of his decisions — they did, after all, get people killed for daring to stand up for themselves in deeply racist communities — so he was morally uncertain, but politically certain as well. It was really only after seeing how his methods were not quite good enough that he began to be politically uncertain and wonder if the methods of non-violence were really all they were cracked up to be. Perhaps in his circumstances they were [to avoid certain death], but not absolutely so. At least, not politically.

    And if we conflate politics with morals then morality also suffers. President Obama is a good example here — there are those I’ve met who defend his use of drone strikes as *morally* good actions. Whatever we might feel about them politically, it strikes me that their moral intuitions have become so twisted by the conflation of morals and politics that they feel forced to defend what is obviously wrong — killing children as a necessary by-product of a drone war — as moral goods. I much rather say that the things I do politically are done for a greater purpose, but I acknowledge them as sins. Otherwise we lose all focus on what is good or evil, and look at the world purely in political terms, where the furtherance of a political goal is morally good, whatever we might do to get there.

    There’s a certain amount of admiration I have for people who are true believers in that manner — it is noble, in some sense — but I don’t think it makes good moral sense [it just doesn’t fit into the language-game of morality, if we prefer to talk in these terms] to call the killing of children morally good.

    Is that beginning to make the distinction clear?

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Hux,

    Just one quick note – normally as an editorial policy we don’t allow comments longer than 350 words to appear, but I couldn’t send you an email privately to request that you break the comment up because your email wasn’t accessible to me behind the scenes. However, we didn’t want to simply reject your comment because it is really quite interesting, so we let it pass. But in the future please keep comments to a 350 word maximum.

    But onto the more interesting content..

    “Most of what I’ve seen in the media with respect to my generation hasn’t really been empirically based, but has just been a general lament or feeling. On the whole it came across as unsympathetic and somewhat timeless (Kids these days! The world will End! etc.) So, by that standard at least, I would say I remain unconvinced. Very little actual empirical work is done to ascertain the sociological characteristics of any generation whenever I read a media article about any generation [whatever might be after us, then millenials, X’ers, baby-boomers, the greatest generation, etc.]. Journalists don’t print a methodology with articles. ”

    Yes, I see your concern clearly now. Thanks for clarifying this for me. First, let me say I very much respect your skeptic tendencies (meant with a *good* connotation, as someone who defers judgment until sufficient warrant is provided for a belief) in asking for empirical evidence.

    I do not have such evidence, and I think you are right, there is no empirical evidence (or not much) on the topic of twenty-somethings and their behavior or beliefs. However, I do wonder if the demand for empirical evidence here is a bit too strong. There are times when we think media coverage is sufficient to warrant belief in a wide-spread phenomenon. For example, when we see countless reports of atrocities in the middle east done by ISIS, we are warranted in inferring some general features of ISIS recruits. Not *all* features, of course, but some. I like to think that the feature of moral certainty I have outlined falls within the features we can infer to be present in twenty-somethings based on media reports (and, of course, personal experience).

    “it seems odd that we can say that an entire generation even has this that or the other character. It seems like an overgeneralization.”

    Just to be clear, in my essay I did note that I don’t think all twenty-somethings suffer from moral certainty in morally ambiguous domains, just most of them. Perhaps you think that generalization is too strong, also, though?

    “The election of President Obama was largely credited to his targeting the youth vote, but it’s not like we single-handedly voted in the first black President. Nor is it fair to lump everyone together of a particular generation because we have so much more than our generation that defines who we are. A white, wealthy, East Coast, Ivy-League millenial is different from a black, poor, southern, State-school millenial. [just to put some extremes together] Becoming politically aware in a post-Soviet world, Iraq War I, Bush’s rise to power, the patriot act, 9/11, Iraq war II, the first black President, the financial meltdown, the Citizen’s United supreme court decision, Occupy Wall Street, fighting in Syria, the drone war program, the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter will sit differently with these two supposed persons.”

    Good point. Well taken too. I feel I can still restrict my claim to a particular class of twenty-something without succumbing to a problem of triviality or insignificance. Let’s just say I am talking about white, wealthy [or middle-class], east coast [and west coast, though], college-educated or currently being college-educated twenty-somethings. This still comprises a large population of people, a population of people which is having significant influence on current events.

    “And just in the manner that it would inhibit one in repairing their car if they are constantly wondering if they should be using a wrench, so it would inhibit a political actor if they are constantly wondering if they should be using any of these methods.”

    I didn’t intend to claim that moral uncertainty is *paralyzing.* Obviously MLK and Ghandi still acted, but they did so, at times, under moral uncertainty. This is evidenced in those who retrospectively ask themselves, “ought I have done what I did?” That MLK and Ghandi were politically successful shows that political actors can still be effective and functional despite operating under moral uncertainty. I actually think moral uncertainty makes them more effective, as they are likely to weigh more factors in their moral decision-making process prior to taking political action. The morally certain person acts quickly without undergoing the natural deliberation which accompanies moral uncertainty.

    “And if we conflate politics with morals then morality also suffers. President Obama is a good example here — there are those I’ve met who defend his use of drone strikes as *morally* good actions. Whatever we might feel about them politically, it strikes me that their moral intuitions have become so twisted by the conflation of morals and politics that they feel forced to defend what is obviously wrong — killing children as a necessary by-product of a drone war — as moral goods. I much rather say that the things I do politically are done for a greater purpose, but I acknowledge them as sins. Otherwise we lose all focus on what is good or evil, and look at the world purely in political terms, where the furtherance of a political goal is morally good, whatever we might do to get there.”

    “Is that beginning to make the distinction clear?”

    Yep! Very intriguing claims. I’d have to think through this a bit more before answering. Would love to see a philosophical theory showing the ties that moral judgments have with political judgments. Let me know if you produce more on this please!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Reading Hal Morris’s link I have learned that the moral stance Dan has been describing is embodied in the so-called Social Justice movement. And upon googling I immediately came across this remark: “There is a palpable arrogance possessed by those who work for or stand for social justice for humans but refuse to go vegan.”

    Like

  21. Hi Dan T

    Yes, I read that. But you still appear to think that there might be differences between this generation and previous ones, or differences between young and old in this respect.

    But if there are no differences between generations, or between young and old in moral certainty, in general, then you would be looking for reasons for something which is not the case.

    Like

  22. Hi astro,

    Could you link me to the place where you found that quote?

    Hi Robin,

    Couldn’t there just be varying explanations for a lack of uncertainty at different ages. Or at least, there could be varying things which different generations or ages are morally certain about, then there could be an explanation for subject-specific certainty.

    Like

  23. astro:

    Reading that is absolutely hilarious. Vegans make up a fraction of a percent of the population and some 85% revert to meat eating.

    And yet, they are making demands! Calling people out! Shaming!

    These poor people are very, very confused.

    Like

  24. Hi DanT, I think one of the distinguishing characteristics between generations (though I believe generalizing is prone to error and a bit dengerous) is not how morally certain people are, but what they consider objects of moral outrage. What effects them.

    That latest Yale incident is a great example, where it is not just that students are lashing out at others inappropriately (though they are) but some feel affected by something that is so innocuous I can’t imagine it having registered on anyone’s radar in my cohort. I seriously hope the claims that people were missing classes and not eating over a nicely worded email suggesting they can handle themselves regarding Halloween costumes was made up. But I have seen other such hyperbolic reactions to total non-issues.

    Hi Astro, nice link… the quote you gave was funny, and DanK is right the rest is hilarious. The end statement seems totally out of touch with reality:

    Veganism must be an integral part of every social justice movement because we can’t expect to combat any oppression in a genuine, lasting way until we combat every oppression in a holistic, comprehensive way.

    I’m thankful some key civil rights issues were tackled before this idea goes mainstream.

    Like

  25. Hi dbholmes,

    “I think one of the distinguishing characteristics between generations (though I believe generalizing is prone to error and a bit dengerous) is not how morally certain people are, but what they consider objects of moral outrage. What effects them.”

    Agreed. I was mentioning this to Robin earlier: “there could be varying things which different generations or ages are morally certain about, then there could be an explanation for subject-specific certainty.”

    As usual, looks like we are on the same page 🙂

    Like

  26. Dantip,

    I’d like to suggest a friendly amendment to your position that moral certainty is, in itself, problematic — this may indeed be too broad a statement. Observe that Gandhi was not morally uncertain regarding his belief that Indians must govern themselves, and MLK Jr. was not morally uncertain regarding his belief that blacks mustn’t continue to be treated as a lesser form of people. Indeed, each of them required great moral certainty in order to see their paths through. It was only figuring out what they should thus do about the circumstances that they questioned. They couldn’t have known if their plans to promote their moral beliefs, would actually work. So instead of attacking moral certainty, which these great men did have, it might be better to attack “unqualified” moral certainty, or perhaps “naive” examples of it. This ought to address the worst of the millennials, without tarnishing some of our greatest revolutionaries.

    Furthermore, doesn’t it seem a bit backwards to champion the concept of “uncertainty” itself, since the philosopher/scientist must surely be in the business of figuring things out, or resolving uncertainty? I’d hate for the precedent to be set that philosophy/science is studied in order to help people become progressively more, morally uncertain!

    So would you mind if we say that the problematic variety of moral certainty, tends to involve “naive” or “unqualified” examples of it?

    Like

  27. Hi Philosopher Eric,

    “I’d like to suggest a friendly amendment to your position that moral certainty is, in itself, problematic — this may indeed be too broad a statement.”
    __________________________________________________

    I think you may have missed this from my essay:

    “Now, surely there are cases where a lack of moral uncertainty is not a vice, for there are some times when moral uncertainty is not necessary in a given situation, since we clearly know what we ought to do. Suppose you promise to help your friend move on Friday at 3 p.m. That time rolls around and you are lying in bed watching T.V. Should you continue watching T.V, or go help your friend? The answer is obvious: you should help your friend. Failing to be morally uncertain here wouldn’t say anything negative about your moral character. In fact being morally uncertain might actually be a vice. It might reveal that you value your selfish desires just as much as your promises to help your friends.”

    __________________________________________________

    You also said,

    “Observe that Gandhi was not morally uncertain regarding his belief that Indians must govern themselves, and MLK Jr. was not morally uncertain regarding his belief that blacks mustn’t continue to be treated as a lesser form of people. Indeed, each of them required great moral certainty in order to see their paths through. It was only figuring out what they should thus do about the circumstances that they questioned.”
    __________________________________________________

    but you may have overlooked this:

    “Many of us want to be like our moral heroes. We want to be like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, fighting for equality and justice. There are, I think, at least two ways that we should try to emulate these moral idols. The first, is to adopt their moral aims. Adopting the belief that things like equality and justice are worth striving for and then valuing these things.

    The second is to adopt their disposition to be morally uncertain, when it comes to achieving those aims. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi had to think very hard about what they ought to do, when their values for social equality and justice came into conflict with other moral values, such as violence and potential harm caused to others. These are not easy or straightforward questions. Should one achieve equality through non-violent means, which might take longer and allow for prolonged suffering for minorities, or should one use harmful means against others, but bring about better lives for minorities more quickly? Indeed, this plausibly falls under the classic conflict between utilitarian and deontological values. Do we do what we feel is our duty, or what will maximize happiness?”
    __________________________________________________

    You then said this:

    “Furthermore, doesn’t it seem a bit backwards to champion the concept of “uncertainty” itself, since the philosopher/scientist must surely be in the business of figuring things out, or resolving uncertainty? I’d hate for the precedent to be set that philosophy/science is studied in order to help people become progressively more, morally uncertain!”

    I’m not compaining about resolving uncertainty. I’m complaining about a failure to feel a certain type of uncertainty (moral uncertainty) when the situation calls for it.
    __________________________________________________

    You also said,

    “So would you mind if we say that the problematic variety of moral certainty, tends to involve “naive” or “unqualified” examples of it?”

    I think you may have overlooked this:

    “But when we have appropriately weighted the conflicting values that generate moral uncertainty, such as with Peter Parker, the woman considering getting an abortion, and the employee considering cooking the books, being morally uncertain shows one’s underlying virtuous character. One takes one’s moral actions and decisions very seriously.”

    and

    “Given that the aforementioned kinds of situations are not straightforward, if one felt immediately morally confident, one’s moral arrogance would reveal a lack of reverence for how one’s actions affect the course of other people’s lives. We would likely ask ourselves with an air of disapproval, “Considering what was at stake in these situations, how could he be so certain, so quickly, about what to do?!”

    Like

  28. Thanks Dantip for illustrating how well your essay conforms with my last observation. Apparently you weren’t arguing against the concept of developing moral positions, but rather against the perils of losing moral sensitivity for affected subjects. Well yes, these are quite different concepts! I do now believe that I understand. (But wouldn’t a term like “moral sensitivity” be more clear than “moral uncertainty?”)

    Consider this as well. Let’s say that a government were to be moved enough by your cause to seek greater moral sensitivity for a demographic in apparent need of it. Mightn’t it then be instructive to develop a highly useful definition for the term “morality”? Sounds like a good post topic to me!

    As you know, I come here both to learn about existing ideas, as well as to seek qualified criticism for the various models which I’ve developed (including my own definition for “morality,” though in my work this is a relatively minor topic). Fortunately, I’m also patient.

    Hi Hal,

    Thanks for bringing up Bloom County. This strip was of tremendous salvation to me as a high school kid — proof that there were other deep social thinkers out there. I actually had no idea he was still in business!

    Like

  29. This racist vs. non-racist actor distinction seems to depend pretty heavily on some kind of relatively reliable way of distinguishing racist from non-racist people, which seems quite optimistic, as well as assuming racism is a binary category rather than a continuum. There are plenty of genuinely racist people (i.e., believe that Black people are inferior) who are nontheless friends with some particular Black people, for example.

    I’d rather have a similar response to the first instance of the action, followed by an escalation as the actions build up. But I’d also assume that we don’t need access to one’s innermost thoughts to be able to distinguish between fighting word and non-fighting word uses of the n word.

    Like

  30. This survey by Pew was linked to over on Leiter Reports.

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/20/40-of-millennials-ok-with-limiting-speech-offensive-to-minorities.

    So, apparently, there is hard data out there showing that of all the generations, the millennials are the least respectful of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech.

    I wonder to what extent this may be due to the fact that of all the generations, this one is the most ignorant of basic history; that is, to what extent it may be due to the fact that many millennials do not know what kind of country this is and what is required in a liberal democracy based on essentially Lockean principles. It is clear that this generation would prefer that we be more like the social democracies of Europe.

    Like