“I don’t know” vs “Huh?”

If It Feels Right – David Brooks

During the summer of 2008,… in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America.

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

You ask someone to describe the difference between an apple and orange, and they tell you they don’t see a difference, or further, they don’t understand your question, they’re both fruits?! This would completely throw off your study, if you were originally intending to assess how people make distinctions, like do people make distinctions by appearance more than species, etc. Regarding the article, it’s striking that a lack of training/experience  (eg vocabulary, practice at thinking about certain matters, indoctrination of one perspective or another) can lead to a view that is so fundamentally different that attempts to have a conversation about a topic are difficult; you and the other party seem to be talking about different things entirely. You are both on ‘different pages’ to varying degrees and at idiosyncratic times, so part of the problem is it’s hard to pin down how you’re “missing” each other (or, even if one person does, the other party doesn’t), so it’s hard to mutually calibrate and meet on the same page.

In the realm of psychotherapy, I can think of two ways such a phenomenon manifests. One is, many people have a biased way to experience and be aware of their emotions. In many cases these days, many people are numbed and feel very little. They may come to think that this is normal. Usually this is inadvertent, done with the goal of simply getting through the day, getting through life without being bothered or otherwise stopped by small complaints and pains. It’s done in the name of not being a whiner, not complaining, being tough, being strong. To the extent that people would admit they do this, they probably think about numbing only negative emotions, but fail to realize the impact this has on their experience of positive emotions – namely, that those get numbed also. So, if you make your default, usual state one in which you don’t feel much, it becomes difficult to talk about anything but the most intense feelings, which you can perceive. And the subject of feelings is not worth talking about or spending much energy thinking about.

Also, people as a group/society are socialized, or trained, to have specific feelings in association with specific situations. It may be inconceivable for someone, then, to experience feeling D, if all they’ve been taught is on the “menu” is A, B, and C. They may not recognize those times they feel D. If they recognize it, they may minimize it or consider it anomalous. Minimizing it usually results in not giving it much thought, or devoting any kind of vocabulary to it. You don’t feel, you don’t notice. The other part of socialization is being taught that situation A results in feeling A. A person has to then reconcile those occasions when he feels some other feeling X, or he seems to be having a different nuance of feeling A than other people. We tend to do this reconciliation by quickly and unconsciously convincing ourselves that there is no difference, that we aren’t experiencing feeling X, and that we are having feeling A. You presume you feel A, and you lack accuracy or honesty about your actual experience.

Thus it can be difficult to have a conversation with a person about their feelings if their bias informs them that a) feelings aren’t interesting or worthwhile to talk about, b) feelings aren’t very prominent; they only feel feelings a little, c) feelings are simple – mostly you feel “okay” and otherwise there’s a simple “menu” of feelings if you really thought about it, and d) feelings are simple; experience A leads to feeling A – why have a conversation about that? As for c) and d), people often confuse their feeling with the actual and presumed feelings of those around them, their belief in good, bad, safety, danger, gain, loss, etc. Eg a person might report that he feels good because he got a dollar; he doesn’t separate the gain of a dollar and the experience, or feeling, of getting it – he might simply presume he feels good because he’s had some financial gain. This separation is just one example of how each person organizes, or makes sense of, their experience. The whole realm of organization is fundamentally different depending on the individual, but we manage to have a lot of conversations about it nonetheless due to some shared experience, shared presumptions, and shared ways of organizing. When these shared premises are lacking, then it’s difficult to talk about your personal, subjective life and conversely hard to understand when someone tells you about themselves. This extends to discussion of hypothetical situations and feelings, so that you and the other person have irreconcilably different responses to “What ifs”; if one person can imagine the hypothetical answer accurately, and if the other person can not only not imagine accurately, but not believe it’s possible to do this imagining.

A person seeking psychotherapy is usually doing so because of discomfort of some sort. And these days, people may seek therapy for feelings they interpret as uncomfortable simply because it doesn’t fit with how they think things should be; they’re having feeling D, outside of what they thought was the “menu” of A, B, and C, and this is affecting their thoughts and actions. They may be having feeling D in a situation that they believe they should be having feeling B or no feeling at all. Some of these people, when they sit in front of the therapist, may expect the feelings and confusion – those unnatural things – to be eliminated. So, in an earlier age when people were more familiar with the idea of discomfort,  a therapist faced the task of helping someone work on their pain or discomfort, including reducing it as well as increasing one’s capacity to endure or reconcile it. And now, the therapist may face the additional task of giving an orientation, or primer, to the client so that they may understand that there is a task to be done at all by the client him/herself, and not passively enjoy the result of due to an outside person.

Another way the need for a basic orientation about premise manifests is, people may think that it’s a foreign and novel concept to talk about feelings, that there is no point in talking about or examining one’s feelings, that feelings can’t be talked about, one’s cognitive patterns can’t be talked about, that feelings and thought patterns are fundamentally out of one’s control so why waste time talking about them. So you could ask something like, how would you feel if this or that happened, they may have limited capacity to accurately imagine how they themselves would feel hypothetically. You could ask about how they feel regarding something that actually happened earlier, and they may simply stay with only venting and examining their current experience, and never begin to reflect on how they could reflect on the present moment outside the therapist’s office. So, just like the researcher on morals possibly having to explain to someone (or get over their expectation for someone) to talk about how they would be “usually” or in this or that specific situation, the therapist may face the task of explaining to a client that it’s possible and maybe even important to reflect how they are at any moment, not just when they are being asked by the therapist.

An additional way a lack of “vocabulary” manifests is that a person may confuse unrelated matters, seeing similarity or relation where there is none, and vice versa. A person may not grasp, for example, the separation of their material success and their emotional wellbeing; they may believe that they feel good because they have many cars and are invited to many dinners. A person may say they like friend A, but only when friend A has money or is in a good mood, and not grasp that others may have the same way of viewing him/her.

In aikido, speaking from my current “level”, this idea of having no vocabulary is relevant when someone has little experience in general. They may perceive conflict or struggle as unavoidable because they don’t know how to reposition themselves or to reduce their tension. They have never experienced the reduction of struggle due to repositioning. They don’t know that it’s possible. It’s also relevant when someone has never experienced aikido of a very high level. They may perceive progress as refinement of athletic abilities only, rising social status only, etc. It may never occur to them that an aikido technique, or any encounter with another person, could feel so different from what they knew to be the range of possibilities. (This relates to the crucial idea of aspirations.)


At first glance, this lack of training or vocabulary may seem to be a good thing. Such a person is free from indoctrination, from boundaries and lines. Such a person is in the moment, free from pressures to be or think any specific way. Such a person is unburdened from esoteric thinking and unnecessary distinctions.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Again, at first glance, such a person would seem to be nonjudgmental, compassionate, generous, accepting of themselves and others as they are, clearly in touch with their current state.

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

In contrast to the ideal-sounding at-first-glance person above, what does this person do in real life? How do you choose a birthday present for someone? If they ask you to fill in for them at work, how do you do their job? If you want to avoid your boss, partner, friend, etc.  getting angry at you, how do you know how to act? What if you have no definite feelings about something, whether because it’s new and foreign, it hasn’t made itself clear to you yet, you’ve only heard a few different, but biased ways, to describe it, etc.? How do you plan for the future, how do you go prepare before going on a trip, etc.? How do you make a decision about something you’ve experienced varying feelings about in the past, such as an initial desire to eat a burger but later feeling regret and physical pain from the heartburn? What about the times when hearing someone else’s preferences made you feel differently than before you heard it? The “I don’t know”-ness starts to be the “Duh, I dunno” or “Huh?”-ness.

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

This article doesn’t explore the adult America much, but what comes to my mind is fear – fear of conflict, fear of argument, fear of losing arguments, fear of losing relationship, and fear of uncertainty. This last, the fear of uncertainty, virtually disables a person from simply having faith in something (eg a philosophy, a person, etc.) and simultaneously knowing that it does not guarantee against adversity, and that it will not cover all situations and all cases. In a culture where many people have this fear of uncertainty (and consequent non-acceptance of unguaranteed rules, philosophies, etc.) they tend to demand certainty from others, however unrealistic. And we rise to each other’s unrealistic challenge, entering into a vicious cycle. In the end, it’s hard to just offer a way that may not work all the time, and likewise hard to accept a way that may not work all the time. Thus there is less and less teaching and mentoring of younger generations, and supporting of each other in general in difficult, uncertain, and ambiguous circumstances.

Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

There may be a parallel here to the debate between those who believe the infant human brain is a blank slate and those who believe that the brain is very structured. I think research is more and more finding support for the latter, that the structure is there but malleable and going through development. As for my own development of morals and sensibilities in general, I’ve been conscious of my benefiting from referring to the sensibilities of others i.e., referring to the group. I have my own unintended idiosyncrasies, and as well I have consciously explored and decided on my own “way” in some cases. The structure has largely defined where and how I hang my sensibilities, but it doesn’t ultimately confine or restrict me. For both the person who unconsciously follows the structure’s definition and the person who unconsciously knows of no structure and doesn’t see anything to “hang” on the structure, they are at high risk of being slaves to chance.


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