If you haven’t taken the hint yet and started subscribing to his editorials in the NY Times, David Brooks published another gem this week in which he calls into question the current popular morality built upon the whims of the individual. Brooks claims/laments that the maxim “If it feels right, do it” has separated morality from traditional resources for moral thinking, and long-standing social institutions such as the church, education, or families no longer contribute to ethical debates about right and wrong. Instead, the individual must decide what is right according to the demands of the moment. Ironically, as some have noted, this ethos has permeated some of those institutions as well – ahem, American churches, ahem.

But this prevailing individualistic morality has led to an unforeseen consequence; the privatization of morality has produced a vacuum of moral thinking among American youth. Rather than deciding for themselves what’s right and wrong, American youth fail to decide anything at all. Brooks notes that a recent survey found:

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot. … When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

Overall, these individuals lack the moral vocabulary and framework to say much about ethics at all. Brooks is quick to point out that this lack of moral thinking hasn’t necessarily led to rampant immorality – society isn’t necessarily going to hell in a hand-basket. Rather, the prioritization of the individual has led, counterintuitively, to a loss of real individuality. Instead of freeing the individual from oppressive moral institutions, the individual has simply become subject to society’s default moral position.

Without the resources to think critically about ethics, one helplessly drifts according to the unspoken – and I would add equally oppressive – whims of society. The loss of “a moral landscape that transcends the self” makes one just another pawn on someone else’s chessboard.

Brooks’ point is not an unsympathetic one. We believe that genuine Christian freedom from (moral) law involves being spontaneously led by the Spirit to “works of love” – or as Augustine said, “Love God and do what you want”. But this does not leave the individual into an absolute ethical void – on the contrary – by grace we are to think critically and individually about how God’s grace works itself out in practice. A genuinely Christian ethic understands that all of life stands under the justifying judgment of God, and therefore our lives are subject to Him. The freedom we have in Christ is nevertheless found with reference to Christ, thereby orienting our lives according to his grace. We not bound by a seemingly arbitrary and oppressive moral code, but neither is this freedom expressed in “following the devises and desires of our heart” (BCP). Instead, we are freed by a Savior, in whom we find true life and liberty.