The Necessary Pain of Leaving the Nest  (Moral Autonomy, Part 2)

Tim Leet (April 2023)

What’s the difference between growing up and getting older? This is a fun question to throw into a room full of adolescents. If you do, you’ll find it won’t take long before someone points out that it’s possible to get older without growing up. You’ll probably hear that getting older is mostly about age, but growing up is about maturity. Growing up is about becoming an adult who is independent of the people and institutions that a child depends on. Of course, adolescents usually have an inflated idea about just how independent we adults actually are. They will learn the truth in time. In this respect, however, they are right: adults who have grown up and cultivated a strong identity are different from adolescents who have not.

Erik Erikson was the first to draw our attention to identity formation as the principle psychosocial task of adolescence. James Marcia’s work on identity formation followed, and he gave us a tool for thinking about that process that my students in my Ethics and Identity class learn each year. Marcia said that the identity formation process is primarily a function of two variables: the extent to which a young person has explored the identity question and the degree to which that person has committed to an identity.

To make this useful simplification even simpler and more useful, Marcia suggested we can assign values to these two variables of either High or Low. Two variables with two possible values each gives us a simple 2X2 matrix of what Marcia called “identity statuses.”

What is identity, anyway? Are all dimensions of identity — dimensions such as gender, race, vocation — explored and committed to in the same way? And what does it mean to “commit” to identity? Isn’t something like racial or sexual identity simply a given fact about me, making my commitment to it rather beside the point? I’ve bitten off more than I can chew in this one blog post. Forgive me for moving forward without giving these good questions the attention they deserve. They will be taken up in an upcoming series of posts on moral identity.

The point I want to make here follows the logic of a syllogism: realizing an achieved moral identity requires that I explore what it means to be moral, AND exploring what it means to be moral requires that I am granted (or assert) moral autonomy; THEREFORE, realizing an achieved moral identity requires that I am granted (or assert) moral autonomy.

Each year my students and I discuss what it would mean to have a strong, committed moral identity without having done the necessary exploration. It would mean committing to an understanding of the moral life that has been defined by someone else. That authoritative someone else is often the students’ parents but can also be coaches, teachers, or religious leaders. Marcia would call this a foreclosed moral identity status. It may be strong by virtue of the high commitment, but it is also likely to be brittle and inflexible due to the absence of autonomous exploration.

This is what it would mean to stay in the nest. If we are lucky, we are born into a family that shows us what it means to live a moral life. We absorb these moral truths and they become our truths. This is a necessary and proper stage in our moral development. During adolescence though, new cognitive powers come online, and suddenly we can conceive of ourselves not just as a bundle of traits and habits but as a singular Self. What is this new Self that is born during adolescence? The process of identity formation is the long process of answering that question.

If we are not given or do not assert our autonomy to explore hard moral questions, we will remain in a foreclosed moral identity status. As warm and lovely as that nest may be, all paths to a fully achieved moral identity require that each of us leaves the nest. This is an alarming idea to many, but that alarm is often the result of a misunderstanding. Moral autonomy does not mean that adolescents must reject the moral lessons of their childhood. It merely means putting those lessons in their hands and holding them at arm’s length. It means turning them over, poking and testing them, entertaining challenging questions…in other words, exploring.

Moral convictions that emerge from such free and deliberate exploration are more easily internalized, whereas the moral convictions taken from an external moral authority can only ever hang on us like someone else’s cloak. Moral autonomy isn’t just the secret ingredient to finding solutions to a school’s problems of bad behavior. It’s a necessary ingredient in the full and healthy development of moral identity.