So what if millennials don’t believe in right and wrong? What does that mean? It means the objective goal posts have been removed. Morality, in our country, has long since had to do with God, framed around a concept of sin and punishment. That which was wrong was sin and sin was defined by the Bible, and by extension, the church (youth pastors, parents, the community). Without God defining right and wrong, what is the backup goal post? Objective truth? In my case, science and philosophy have removed that goal post for me (Gen X, but still).
Science shows that much of what we consider to be reality is created in the mind- colour, taste, sound and even pain are all internally generated. Sensory information is basically the brain’s interpretation of vibrations. The sky is not really blue and mushrooms are only considered edible by the people whose taste buds say “yes”. Mine don’t. Kant (and large branches of eastern philosophy and now postmodern philosophy) recognizes that reality is only empirically real, that is, it is only functionally real. Space and time aren’t “out there” as some kind of permanently fixed objective reality, and in fact, nothing is “out there”. If something is “out there” in fixed objective reality, we don’t have access to it; our reality is completely subjective because it is always perceived through a human subject and the filters that come with human perspective.
In order for us to be able to say what is right and wrong, there has to be some line of demarcation between the two. Without God or objective reality, it is really hard to know where to draw the line. That’s why it’s blurry. It is not because millennials have some how failed to learn something so natural that their older counterparts have readily understood it. It is that their definition of reality has changed, and there are not any easily apparent replacement goal posts.
Millennials, and people like me, have to ask themselves how they know what is right and what is wrong. It is a difficult question. Harm seems to be the obvious goal post in the absence of the others. It is wrong if it does harm, it is right if it does not. However, we recognize that there are differences among people, and what harms them, and what does not. Harm itself is a nuanced concept. Take lying for example. There are times when lying causes harm and times when it does not. There are times when it actually better to lie, to spare someone’s feelings, or when telling the truth is nothing but selfish. Without God saying “lying is sin” or objective truth saying “lying is wrong”, how do we decide when to lie and when not to lie? Well, we do it based on the situation. Which means that the goal post is movable.
Having movable goal posts requires an astute sense of judgement because morality is defined and decided upon in every situation. There are no more defaults. There is no way for us to fall back on a set course previously decided by our biblical or philosophical concepts of right and wrong. They just aren’t solid. This is exactly what Nietzsche was saying we ought to do- create this meaning for ourselves. He saw that God was dead, and he saw reality as Kant did, with reality created by the perceiving subject, and his ubermensche are not the Arian brotherhood. The ubermensche are those who recognize that there is not something in reality that holds objective meaning or objective truth and who create meaning and truth for themselves. This, to me, is freedom.
But with this freedom comes great responsibility. It is in the Bible, it is in the Bhagavad-Gita, it is in Sartre’s existentialism and Husserl’s phenomenology, it is in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. When we create for ourselves meaning and truth, we are responsible for the harm we cause others. We owe it to those around us, and the whole world, to be the best people we can possibly be, to conduct ourselves with as much honour, integrity, justice, and love as we can possibly manage. So rather than having black and white definitions of right and wrong dictated by concepts of God and objective truth, we have values in their place. Or we ought to. Only values will hold in the situational fluid of every day life. I cannot conduct myself according right and wrong, but only according to what I see as honorable and just. The word I live by is my own and I strive to put as much love into the world as a flawed human being can.
The problem is not with right and wrong or with movable goal posts. The problem a lack of introspection on the values which motivate our behaviours. And I would say this problem is not exclusive to millennials, but much of the country. People are so busy looking outside of themselves that they do not realize they are the problem. How about judge not, and take some time to clean up your side of the street? Get that plank out of your eye, and be the change. Most of all, take some time to think about why people are the way they are, and have some understanding, some compassion, and then maybe, you know… a conversation.