Ethical Maturity

Can adults tell youngsters what to do? The dominant method in education today says no. Adults can only help youngsters explore their feelings and make their own decisions. A textbook used in sex education, for example, advises teachers to talk like this to children: "Although we adults feel it's in your best interest to delay intimate sexual behaviors, you and only you will decide when you will become sexually involved." Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of religion at Duke University, says public schools treat ethics as a matter of individual decision-making. The goal in moral education is to teach students how to make up their own minds. The trouble, Hauerwas says, is that, "most students don't have minds worth making up." Now, Hauerwas does not mean that as an insult. He merely means that most students have not had their minds trained by confrontation with the great principles of Truth and Justice expounded through centuries of Western culture. Students have been told that all they have to do is look within, judge their own feelings, choose what "feels right" to them. The result is people who approach ethics as though it were a consumer choice—who insist that they are free to choose their own value systems just as they are free to choose between, say, a Sony or a General Electric radio. The implicit message to youngsters is that junior knows best. Making up their own minds implicitly means rejecting the teachings of their home and churches. In fact, ethical maturity is actually defined in educational theory as the autonomous individual making his own choice. Any external authority is suspect. If you listen to anything outside your own feelings, you are not truly mature, independent, and autonomous. We see the same theme in psychology. Psychologists say there are various levels of moral development, from blindly following rules to making independent value judgments. The trouble is, there's an atheistic bias built into this. If you follow an outside authority—God's commands, for example—you are by definition at a lower level of ethical maturity. For example, one psychologist conducted a study of the moral beliefs of conservative Christians. To no one's surprise, he found that they appeal to an external authority—to God's will and law. The psychologist triumphantly announced that conservative Christians rank low on the scale of moral maturity. But, of course, the scale was biased against them from the outset, in its very definition of maturity. The outcome is that our culture not only rejects the idea of a transcendent ethic but also pronounces those who still hold it to be psychologically immature. When moral education is based on this kind of psychological theory, the results are sadly predictable. Studies show that youngsters who take courses teaching individual decision-making as the basis for ethics end up with higher rates of drug use and sexual activity. The reason should be obvious. Without a timeless, universal set of ethical guidelines that they can rely on—an absolute standard beyond themselves—young people have no defense against temptation. They have no defense against the pushers and the dealers. In my next commentary, I'll explain why there is little hope that kids will Just Say No.


Chuck Colson


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