It occurred to me last night, in the midst of a class discussion about world poverty and the responsibilities those of us in the developed world might have towards the horribly poor of the world, that I have witnessed a sea change in the attitudes of students in my relatively short career in the classroom. About a decade ago, when I first started teaching ethics sections, the majority of students thought that we had some obligation to others—both near and far—though many of them wondered whether there was any effective way to meet them.
Then, there were a few students who more or less claimed that each of us was out for himself. But these voices were in the minority. Now, even as my students are more nominally religious, even as I teach in a religious context, even as many are willing to make claims as to the supremacy of Christianity and the necessity of something like traditional sexual morality—at least insofar as it applies to homosexuals and adulterers, though not to the case of fornication—many more of them are unwilling to think that we have any obligation whatsoever to the poor or to our fellow humans. They deny often that there is any such thing as a human community or any positive obligation to members of such a community or even human rights as opposed to merely civil rights.
It might just be that I don't do a good enough job motivating such an obligation, but I think that something more severe has happened. I fear that we have become a nation of people who are so isolated that the idea of morality—which is after all about the obligations that I have to others—has become foreign to us. Individualism has trumped any connection and we are all perfectly happy to go back to our homes and sit in front of our televisions or computers and interact only with those we choose often through the medium of a screen.
And that makes me sadder even than usual.