Now of course we should be careful in drawing grand conclusions from this study. In particular, we should hesitate before concluding that this study shows actual moral decline, i.e., a decrease in general moral virtue or conscientiousness.
But the authors speculate that their findings reflect the highly individualistic values that younger people now seem to espouse :
We think that this extreme moral individualism and relativism can be partly explained by our findings—these young people have not been socialized into a shared moral framework, and they simply lack the vocabulary for it. ....Our findings fit in this broad cultural picture in which individual achievement and fulfillment are valued above almost everything else, and definitely above communal values.Without sounding too codger-y: I think there's something to this. The relative decline of religion has left a conceptual gap in popular consciousness that has yet to be filled in. I don't actually think most of my students have bad moral values. But they certainly don't have robust conceptual networks for thinking about value questions. As we've noted here many times before, a crude relativism is often students' starting place for thinking about value questions.
And this seems to me precisely where philosophy, and philosophical ethics in particular, enter the scene. It's not fashionable these days to talk about the role of education in 'civilization': You sound like some sort of retro-Kipling, pining for the days when teaching the Great Books was seen as a lynchpin in a battle against cultural barbarism. But there's a different way of thinking about the civilizing function of education. People cannot coherently think about what they cannot describe and categorize. One powerful benefit of studying ethics from a philosophical point of view is that it provides us with critical vocabulary for thinking about ethical questions. And in our present culture, this seems more needed than ever. This means thinking of philosophical education neither as dispensing a series of timeless truths nor as merely the sociology of thought. Five years ago, I wrote this, about my own ethics courses:
In these courses, what I hope to convey above all else is that philosophy offers a tradition of serious, reasoned argument about moral questions. This is, I think, a shock to many students: The cultures from which they come, to the extent that have 'moral argument' at all, don't tend to treat moral questions as amenable to rational discussion or progress. The choices available in the wider culture are easy dogmatism (sometimes though not always religious in origin) or easy skepticism. What I intend they discover in a moral philosophy course is that there are other options. The students need not hitch themselves any one of them, of course. But the overall message is that moral knowledge is not hopeless. Indeed, moral philosophy presents us with an overabundance of plausible theories and options, rather than a meager menu of self-serving dogmas or theoretical non-starters.
But what applies to ethics applies to other domains of philosophy as well. Students lack a critical vocabulary for thinking about knowledge. Hence, epistemology serves that aim. Students lack a critical vocabulary for thinking about the artistic. Hence, aesthetic serves that aim. When we provide students such critical vocabularies, we are (in an important way) civilizing them. In a time of cultural flux, where there is an ever greater need for such civilizing processes, we are serving a vital cultural function.