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.

6 thoughts on “Why do Young People Think Morality is Private?

  1. I might be misunderstanding your point, but the claims “morality is private” and “morality should be discussed” do not seem to contradict. Even after discussing morality, the <>ultimate<> decision about morality remains individual and private.

  2. Hello Prateek. Thanks for your comment. I think my point is that there is a distinction to me made between: 1. The decision which is individual and private;2. The content and justification of the decision which must be about what is morally right over a number of occasions.The moral act is not individual and private.The rule of morality which I follow cannot be individual and private,or it is not a rule of any kind.Another point is that if moral decisions are individual and private so are all decisions. Decisions about the best scientific theory to interpret data are just as much individual and private, seeing as scientists disagree presented with the same evidence.On privacy it is important to make a distinction between a right to privacy, that is the right to have a sphere in which I make my own decisions and a belief that decisions are made in some space which is absolutely private and incommunicable in relation to the community. ı hıope that clarifies what I am saying.

  3. I have a feeling that people who say ‘morality is private’ may mean something different: namely, that certain areas of ones life – and in particular, one about which people are inclined to moralise (so, for example, one’s sex-life choice if friends, political choices etc) are private, in the sense that one is not necessarily obliged to account for them in impersonal ways in the public sphere.That is of course a moral view itself – one that I have some sympathy with, as I supect do you.Its clearly not the same as the view that morality is undiscussable – more that one has a right not to talk about certain aspects of one’s life in certain contexts.

  4. Bill, I think I tried to say the same thing in the post, though if I didn’t make it clear, it’s a good thing you have drawn attention to it. What I emphasised is that young people are going through the very necessary stage of separation from parental authority which may lead them to emphasise the right to their own values and life choices. The important thing is to draw a distinction between the right to make an individual choice in morality and seeing morality as a pure self-referring discourse.

  5. Fair enough, and on a second look it’s even clearer in your reply to Prateek.But maybe we do differ over some things. Part of what I meant was that the word ‘morality’ might be heard as referring to something different by people who aren’t indoctrinated in philosophy.Also – I’m not sure that parents would be the only relevant source of social pressure – consider also schools, peers, religion, society in general.In fact, it might be that feeling that ‘morality is private’ is a necessary step on the way to a healthily autonomous moral consciousness. (How Hegelian!) That might also give some grounds for thinking that Aristotle is right to think that there’s no poin t in studying Ethics before you’re thirty…

  6. When non-philosophers use the word ‘morality’ they may be thinking more life style choice or private life decisions, than rule governed behaviour. Even so, I don’t think that there is an area so private that it escapes from moral qualification. We should certainly take into account the way that young adult understandings of morality emerge from negotiating the power of peer groups and authority sources other than parents. Resistance to parental authority can also along with over investment in other possible authority sources, which maybe are seen as non-moral.I’m sure we can understand Hegel’s comments on morality and ethics in terms of psychological development and maturation, the Phenomenology in particular can certainly be read in that way, but not only in that way.

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