Losing our moral vocabulary

I thought this was a thought provoking talk.  Here is a summary:

ArchBishop Charles Chaput recently gave a talk in British Columbia and spoke of how the reaction to Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” has changed over the years.  “The Lottery” is set in rural 1940s America.  The story tells of an annual ritual festival which is meant to insure a good harvest.  Everyone lines up and draws a ticket.  This particular year, Tessie Hutchinson, a young wife and mother, draws the ticket with the black mark.  It is made official, Tessie has drawn the black mark and so has been selected as the human sacrifice for the ritual.  The villagers proceed to stone her to death.

Apparently a college professor named Kay Haugaard wrote an essay a few years back on how the reaction of her students to “The Lottery” have changed since the 1970s.  Chaput’s summary:

“She said that in the early 1970s, students who read the story voiced shock and indignation. The tale led to vivid conversations on big topics — the meaning of sacrifice and tradition; the dangers of group-think and blind allegiance to leaders; the demands of conscience and the consequences of cowardice.  Sometime in the mid-1990s, however, reactions began to change.

Haugaard described one classroom discussion that — to me — was more disturbing than the story itself. The students had nothing to say except that the story bored them. So Haugaard asked them what they thought about the villagers ritually sacrificing one of their own for the sake of the harvest.

One student, speaking in quite rational tones, argued that many cultures have traditions of human sacrifice. Another said that the stoning might have been part of “a religion of long standing,” and therefore acceptable and understandable.

An older student who worked as a nurse, also weighed in. She said that her hospital had made her take training in multicultural sensitivity. The lesson she learned was this: “If it’s a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge.

… Our culture is doing catechesis every day. It works like water dripping on a stone, eroding people’s moral and religious sensibilities, and leaving a hole where their convictions used to be.  Haugaard’s experience teaches us that it took less than a generation for this catechesis to produce a group of young adults who were unable to take a moral stand against the ritual murder of a young woman.  Not because they were cowards. But because they lost their moral vocabulary.”

One can read the article to see Chaput’s suggestions as to what we should do about this (in a nutshell, we need to reverse the course of things since as its stands the culture is shaping Christians instead of Christians shaping the culture).  But for our purposes here, I wonder if others think this reflection on to something.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

7 thoughts on “Losing our moral vocabulary”

  1. Nothing too insightful to add here, but the general question is one with which I have been struggling greatly in recent weeks. Teaching in an area where the dominant culture does not place the weight on education needed to succeed in American society, has caused me to reflect more seriously on whether Kanzlerin Merkel was correct in her pronunciation of “multiculturalism is dead”.

    It seems obvious (at least to some small degree) that cultures are just as subject to evaluation as individual behavior. But passing any sort of authoritative judgement seems to require an absolute knowledge of the “goods” to which any given culture (or individual–the unit of analysis I find more valid) must aspire.

    It seems we have a more than ample number of possible figures to whom we can look when searching for a model of human behavior (I’m thinking of Hauerwas and his approach). Short of equating cultural and individual behavior (can the two be equated so completely?), it seems to require more than a small amount of hubris to declare one culture the “model” all other cultures should strive to emulate.

    Two unappealing options seem to remain: declare your culture the pinnacle of all cultures and judge every other culture against how closely it matches your own, or alternatively be like the college students and dismiss any value judgements as invalid or at least immaterial.

    Personally, I want to say my students’ culture should clearly be faulted for ridiculing the educated, but I am not willing to beatify my own culture for valuing education. Is my only recourse to suggest there is a Platonic ideal of culture that I can somehow comprehend and use as a model in passing judgement on culture?

    At least for me, there is a crucial difference in passing judgment on individuals vs passing judgment on cultures. I have no problem finding model individuals. I am hesitant to declare any culture worthy of model status.


  2. You could as easily say these are Christians regurgitating a common rationalization for the horrendous violence of the Old Testament. To a large extent Christians, evangelicals at least, use multiculturalism to defend genocidal justice. They’re totally okay with it.


    1. Did Beelzebub just accuse Evangelicals of being pro-genocide? Am I the only one that finds this ridiculous? Take a breath, Beelzebub. You may not like the politics of the so-called “religious right”, but take a breath and reduce your daily intake of new atheist literature so you can return to sane discourse.


      1. Evangelicals have defended Yahweh-delivered genocide as it is recorded in the OT, yes. If you can’t find any examples of this, I’d be happy to find some.


  3. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    For some reason this makes me happy beyond belief. To me, it’s not that people are loosing morality, it is the entire idea of adult consent and the “live and let live” frame of mind.


  4. In some sense I agree with Chaput’s insight. There is something that has changed since I have been in college (20 years ago) and now. But I think it is not the message of tolerance so much, nor a problematic understanding of linguistics, nor is it a moral relativism.

    It is apathy. Case in point, I am teaching a new course on Catholic morality this year, and my students watched “Good Night and Good Luck” as a visage of moral decision making during the McCarthy era.

    What bothered them was not that right or wrong decisions were being made, or that right or wrong possibilities exist.

    What bothered them was that decisions were being made at all. Their answer to avoiding the problem?

    Do nothing. So really what Chaput is citing in that story is that core response. Why act? It’s going to cause problems anyway.

    As one student said, “McCarthy would have gotten caught eventually…”

    To which I replied “by whom?”

    This comes in part to the educational system itself, which investigates not only the kids who start fights, bully, cheat, and steal, but investigates their teachers, and their peer tattlers to make sure that no confusion to the purpose of their claim exist. It has left them, and us as teachers powerless to teach right response.


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