Creating Values Skeptics: My Latest Column at Ethics Newsline

I write a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the “ethics fatigue” that has grown up around today’s young people, as they are constantly bombarded with aspirational messages and lists of important values and virtues.

Ethics Newsline

I recently had the good fortune to lead a session on leadership and ethics for a group of high school students. It went well — all except for one part, which fell sort of flat. As I reflected on the ups and downs of the talk, I realized that I had been having the same experience with high schoolers for some time.

I’ve been giving addresses on ethics and leadership in public life for many years and in front of many audiences. These events almost always go well and generate insights in the attendees. I liberally mix my experience with the Institute for Global Ethics, my experience in civic engagement, and my experience in politics to make the basic point that, in public life, we ought to root our decision-making in shared values rather than solely in policy or law. A part of these sessions often includes an exercise in which people identify and discuss what their shared, core values might be. Later in my address, I typically use this as a foundation for other points about how to analyze situations and make decisions.

It is this “shared values” portion that fell flat with my high school audience — as it has been for some time. Why? Students these days continually are bombarded with messages throughout school and extracurricular activities that remind them of what their “core values” ought to be. There are posters in the hallways with acronyms designed to generate pep and morals all at once. There are T-shirts, stickers, decals, pencils, and more — all boasting aspirational lists of values and virtues to be memorized, abided by, and spread the message.

What’s more, many students also have been subjected to meetings, classes, lectures, and rallies designed to underscore these values. They’ve broken into small groups, shared their feelings, written on white boards, and addressed postcards to themselves as reminders, all in workshops designed with the same attention to psychology that an adult-education specialist might use when designing a high-stakes board retreat.

The end result increasingly appears to be cynicism and fatigue.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.

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