Thursday, July 24, 2008

Millennials and the ethical sensibility

Several months ago, I attended a presentation outlining the attributes of the generation of students that dominate today's universities, the so-called 'Millenials' or Generation Y (those born since 1980). The presenter (Michael Meeks from San Francisco State University) described a number of characteristics of this generation that can make higher education, at least in the ways it's typically organized and delivered, challenging for them. Some of these are familiar: a technology-induced desire for instant gratification; a general lack of written literacy; a delayed onset of maturity traceable in part to helicopter parents; a culture of relentless self-esteem boosting that leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the first confrontations with academic diversity, and at its worst, fosters a sense of entitlement or narcissism. These characteristics are doubly challenging for those of us teaching philosophy — a discipline that rewards patience, intellectual independence, humility, and strong verbal skills!

There was, however, one particular feature of Millennials that Meeks mentioned that got me thinking about teaching ethics, and in particular, the sort of sensibility needed for students to profit from the study of philosophical ethics. (I'll just call this 'the ethical sensibility'.)

Certain Millennial traits actually seem to be part of the ethical sensibility. Millennials are supposed to be socially conscious, and in my experience, this generally holds true. Most of the students I teach think it's important to be ethically good and are at least minimally sensitive to ethical considerations. Of course, every course has its cynics or moral skeptics, but they've been in the minority. On top of that, Millennials tend to be confident and optimistic, owing to their Boomer parents arranging an orderly and generous environment for them. It's hard to imagine students being motivated to think about ethical questions if they think that ethical problems are intractable or irresoluble.

But here's the flip side to their optimism: I've observed that Millennials are alarmed by the prospect of even apparent ethical dilemmas or conflicts. I gather that many of use ethical dilemmas and conflicts as teaching tools — as ways of illustrating theoretical differences, highlighting salient features of the issue under discussion, etc. But I've noted that students try their best to avoid having to make a difficult ethical choice. Some efforts along these lines are actually welcome. For example, students often respond to dilemmas or conflicts by asking for additional facts that (they hope) will dissolve the dilemma or conflict in question. This desire for a full empirical picture of the situation at hand is something I think we should encourage. At the same time, you can't just stipulate facts in order to avoid hard ethical analysis and deliberation. I can think of several exchanges with my students that have gone something like this:

CHOLBI: So Student, what do you think Mr. A should do in this situation?
STUDENT: If P is true, Mr. A should definitely X.
CHOLBI: P isn't true (Or: We don't know if P is true.)
STUDENT: I don't know (Or: (awkward silence))

I've also had students become angry or disengaged in response to this kind of dialectic, lashing out at me or at the subject matter because the facts just don't line up so as to yield simple resolutions to ethical dilemmas or conflicts.

I'm curious if others have had similar experiences and how the issue might be approached pedagogically. The Millennial sensibility is optimistic with respect to ethics: It's epistemologically optimistic, holding that even apparent conflicts and dilemmas dissolve with a dash of additional empirical facts. It's metaphysically optimistic in that it supposes that the world is normatively unified rather than fragmentary — that whatever the ethically right thing to do is leaves no residue or regrets. These are substantive methodological commitments, but I think students have to earn their right to these commitments by considering the possibility that such commitments are misguided — and to do that they have to take the ethical dilemmas and conflicts we propose to them at face value. The ethical sensibility necessary to profit from the study of philosophical ethics isn't hostile to Millennial optimism but it is not especially compatible with an uncritical optimism.

Or so it seems to me.


  1. I'm interested in this post mostly because I'm right on the borderline between the 'Millenials' and the 'Old folks'. (I wasn't born since 1980, but I was born in 1980.)

    I'm not sure what to say about the characteristics mentioned in your first paragraph. While there might be statistical indications that some of these characteristics are more prevalent than they have been (though I'd like to see the data!), surely today's students come from as diverse situations and backgrounds as ever, and that can't be neglected when considering whether one should teach with emphasis to those statistically-indicated characteristics.

    But, as to your concern that "Millennials are alarmed by the prospect of even apparent ethical dilemmas or conflicts", I have to say that I've never noticed this view amongst my fellow students (when I was one) or amongst my own students (when I was a T.A.). Admittedly, I couldn't have the basis of comparison to judge how these individuals compare to people who were students before I was born, but if they were somehow more willing to just accept their own moral inconsistencies, I fail to see how things haven't improved.

    I think there is a lot to be said about your sample exchange, specifically with respect to its third line, "CHOLBI: P isn't true (Or: We don't know if P is true.)" I'd like to see a good example of how "P isn't true" might occur in this kind of example, because I can't really think of a good one. On the other hand, I hope most of us don't feel entirely comfortable with the "we don't know if P is true". I mean, it certainly seems to be a legitimate objection that it is unfair to force one to draw strong conclusions from intuition-pumping thought experiments that are so ridiculously unlikely to occur that if they were to occur, the appropriate response would be to double-check and triple-check whether things really are so. Examples are abundant: Wait, you expect me to believe that this doctor knows that there are compatible patients ready to receive this janitor's organs, yet he hasn't done anything wrong or malicious in gathering this data? How exactly do I know that Jim will kill those Indians, and how could I be so certain that I couldn't stop him? How could one morally come to know that pushing that fat man off the bridge would stop that trolley? I think maybe the student's "I don't know" in your little dialogue is really just a disguised "It is unbelievable that it could be so (or that one could know as much)."

    I think today's students are much more willing to accommodate uncertainties when they occur in a realistic situation. Do you find the same sort of difficulties arise when the students are considering whether to lie to the Nazi at the door, what they would do were they Cambodians of a certain class during the Khmer Rouge period, whether one should vote Republican, or whether they should plagiarize their term papers? If so, your experiences are vastly different from mine. I've found that students are very willing to accept that in realistic cases, an action might be acceptable-given-what-the-agent-knew (excusable), while also being wrong (or vice versa). Surely this counts as apparent conflict that won't dissolve and that will remain irresoluble, conflict that can result in "residue or regrets".

  2. Gail ShaughnesseyJuly 25, 2008 at 11:17 AM

    My students have changed over the years. When I first taught Ethics, students were willing to argue in favor of Kant or Mill. Now their initial responses are virtually always “it depends.” I spend more and more time discussing the pros and cons of universal rules and relative judgments. I also find that students look for more facts that make the resolution more obvious or less distasteful. I discussed with one of my classes the notion that they were influenced by ‘happy ending’ movies. I teach an introduction to film class; my students tend to dislike movies with conflicted endings; they love the resolution that is if not happy at least acceptable. If I point out – to both my ethics students and my film students – that the hero has compromised him/herself by killing the bad guy, students simply shrug and say the right thing happened.

    I’m not sure if this is a good change or a bad change. Certainly it does show a certain optimism – there can be happy endings. But I worry that students are increasing more interested in intentions than consequences. Violence is ok if for the right reason, and Boondock Saints is the best movie ever.

  3. Michael--

    I think you're very right that it's important not to discourage this kind of thinking (creative problem-solving, actually). And like you I find that this happens all the time in my ethics courses. But like Kevin, I haven't found that students are actually alarmed by it. More frustrated or confused than alarmed maybe. And I notice the same thinking, even more intensely, in my older, non-traditional students. So I'm not sure it's a millenial problem. (But I am pretty skeptical of these generational stereotypes in general.)

    Here's my take on what's going on: students haven't quite identified that there are two goals in most courses that touch on practical ethics: figuring out the right thing to do in a particular situation, and figuring out what morality in general will require of us. The creative problem solving portion is easier to see as it resembles the moral thinking they have been doing in their normal lives and can be expected to do in their future life. But it often takes some work for them to see the other task even exists. Artificial restrictions on situations are seen as the professor trying to prove he or she is smarter rather than trying to teach this other aspect of ethics.

    One way I get around this creative problem solving to talk about more foundational aspects in ethics is to show them the resemblance between "controls" in scientific experiments and the artificial restrictions I ask them to contemplate in ethics. I tell them that the situations have to be exactly the same in all relevant circumstances in order to get a true bead on the dilemma. Maybe it works so well because I teach at a primarily engineering school, but it does work pretty well.

  4. Did you mean academic *adversity*?

  5. I have noticed somethng I find very puzzling regarding how ethical arguments affect students' willingness to do what seems to be required. They may very well accept the premises of an argument but because they do not like what the conclusion requires they simply refuse to accept it even if it follows from the premises they have previously accepted. Generally, it seems to me (I have not yet done any formal study) that while they may have good general moral attitudes they do not translate these into actions if the actions require them to give up something of value to themselves.

  6. Thanks everyone, for these insightful comments.

    Anon - Yes, thanks. That's "adversity"!

    Kevin and Adam - Just going by what the social science research on Millennials says. I'm sure it's a tricky thing to research, and any generalization will have to acknowledge lots of qualifications and exceptions.

    Gail - Your remarks about making for easier or less distasteful resolutions echoes my experience. Partly this seems to reflect a desire to avoid difficult intellectual problems, but I also think it often reflect the belief that there are no hard problems -- that the world is very ethically tidy place!

    Kevin - I hear you on the contrived or artificially abstract examples. Echoing Adam, I think the point of trolley problems and so on is not that they reflect common problems we confront in moral decision making but that (a) their purity allows us to isolate important theoretical differences, and (b) because of this purity, they help students to react to these theoretical differences. So a desire for more information is understandable, but it can (as Adam notes) reflect the assumption that the point of discussing such contrived examples is to actually solve the moral problems they offer.

    But let me fill in an example to illustrate the kind of resistance to conflict I have in mind. In political philosophy or practical ethics courses, when I've taught justice and equality issues, there are students who desire that there be no conflict between economic liberty and economic equality. So when I present them with statistics illustrating economic inequality in the U.S. compared with other less market-oriented economies, they become annoyed that there's an apparent conflict between these two values. I see this as a kind of desire for an ethically harmonious world that leads to a kind of wishful thinking. This is a kind of ethical optimism run amok, isn't it?

  7. Gail ShaughnesseyJuly 29, 2008 at 10:10 AM

    “I see this as a kind of desire for an ethically harmonious world that leads to a kind of wishful thinking. This is a kind of ethical optimism run amok, isn't it?” I am attracted to your phrase “ethical optimism run amok.” The phrase makes me wonder about other less “ethically harmonious worlds.” The same students who refuse to see the conflict between economic liberty and economic equality and who consistently refuse to accept that sometimes there simply is no other information to make a choice more palatable flock to watch morally ambiguous movies like The Dark Knight. I am looking forward to beginning my fall classes when I will be able to pursue this issue further in class.


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