Challenging the moral idealism of the millennials

ethics word cloudIt’s mid-term time and I am, as are professors around the world, mired in mid-semester marking.  I do not know a single university professor who, when asked about the aspect of the job that he or she dislikes the most will not say “marking.” (OK, some might mention administrative work, but only when not mired in marking.)  Today I’ve been marking undergraduate ethics assignments.  The focus of the assignment is to provide a journal-type reflection on the content, discussions, films, readings etc that formed the first half of the course.  Despite my dislike for marking, I’m always truly humbled by the students’ trust that they place in me when they reflect on what these ethics discussions meant to them personally.

We read so many conflicting things these days about the so-called millennials, a group to which these students generally belong.  On the one hand they are often seen as slackers (my own son is a millennial and I have to say that this characteristic does not describe either him or any of his millennial friends and colleagues), while on the other they are sometimes viewed as taking the moral high road on any number of issues.  My anecdotal observations of my own students suggest that they have ideals, but that they haven’t been challenged to think deeply about those ideals.

On my course outline I provide for my students two important definitions as follows:

Devil’s Advocate

  • A person who advocates an opposing or unpopular cause for the sake of argument or to expose it to a thorough examination.
  • Also called promoter of the faith. Rom. Cath. official appointed to present arguments against a proposed beatification or canonization of a beatus



  • A fly that bites livestock
  • An annoying person; particularly a person who provokes others into action by asking annoying questions.
  • A person who upsets your status quo.

I then tell the students that these are my roles.  I’m here to make them uncomfortable, to provide alternate views on issues that they think they have all sorted out.  Well, if I read their reflective assignments correctly, I’m doing a pretty good job.

In a study of the moral ideology of the Gen Y  cohort reported earlier this year in the Journal of Business Ethics, the authors suggest that this group of young adults possess both more idealism and more relativism than previous generations. [1] As I observe my students, however, it seems to me that this idealism and situationalism might be well served by challenging them before letting them loose to make moral decisions.

When it comes to the next generation of professionals in any field, it seems to me that we do need to question their idealistic views so that they can put themselves in other positions.  If they still come back to the first position, then at least they’ve thought about it.  It seems to me that my current undergraduate ethics students are certainly thinking.  What more could a professor ask for?

[1] Rebecca A. VanMeter, Douglas B. Grisaffe, Lawrence B. Chonko, James A. Roberts. (2013) Generation Y’s Ethical Ideology and Its Potential Workplace Implications. Journal of Business Ethics 117(1), 93-109


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