“You Do You” and the Inadequacy of Postmodern Ethics


Equipping Providence students “for a life of virtue” by teaching them to prize God’s revelation over their own desires as the ultimate authority in determining right and wrong.

Teenage parlance changes faster than red carpet fashion trends, and it often fails to offer any enduring insight into contemporary culture other than its transience. However, on rare occasions it can tap into a the pulsing heart of the cultural zeitgeist. Lately, as I’ve eavesdropped on conversations in the halls of Providence, I’ve picked up on a new phrase. “YOLO” (“you only live once” for those not up on the lingo), has been replaced by the currently vogue: “You do you.” If “YOLO” expressed the timeless hedonistic human impulse, “you do you” reflects something that on the surface might appear more virtuous.

A quick Googling of the phrase brings up definitions like “following your heart,” “satisfying your desires,” and “being yourself.” There are elements that can be affirmed here. There is value in having a firm enough sense of self that one is not easily blown by the winds of peer pressure or people-pleasing desires. There is value in recognizing those ways in which God has uniquely made each one of us individuals with our own personalities, gifts, and interests.

However, behind the superficial appeal of the sentiment “you do you” lies an insidious untruth: You and your desires are king.

When it comes to postmodern ethics there are two predominate questions that are used to determine whether a behavior is ethical: “Do I desire or want to do it?” and “Will it harm anyone else?” So long as the answer to the former is “yes” and the latter is “no,” then the behavior in question is considered ethical.

However, behind both of these questions is the crucial assumption of individual autonomy. In the first question, individual autonomy reigns as the deciding factor in my own personal involvement in taking an action. I am the final arbiter of what is good based on my own personal feeling and experience. If I want it, then it is good. My desires are king.

The second question offers the only check on our personal desires: our desires are king so long as they do not hurt anyone else. However, this second question hides the same assumption of individual autonomy, namely, that we can easily separate out which of my actions pertain only to me and which actions harm others. The assumption is that there is an easily discernible line between actions that have consequences only for me and those that have consequences for others. But this assumption drastically misunderstands the nature human relationships. Human beings do not exist in an isolated bubble out of which we may emerge on occasion to partake in relationship. Rather, we exist in an interconnected web of relationships and within broader communities—and every part of who we are (character) and every action we take (behavior) has some effect upon those wit whom we are in relationship.

The second question also assumes that we get to define “harm” based on our terms, rather than on any sort of objective standard. An ethical paradigm built on the foundation of individual autonomy struggles to find norms that can be universally shared across time and place. R.R. Reno, in his insightful article “The Empire of Desire”, describes this problem within the “you do you” paradigm well:

Yet, underneath all this we find an antinomian sensibility. We are trained to be suspicious of long- standing moral traditions; we are told to adopt a critical attitude toward inherited norms. That’s not just an academic habit of mind. It serves a moral conviction, widespread though often tacit: that human beings flourish to the degree that they’re free to satisfy their personal desires. The same conviction underwrites our therapeutic vocabulary of empowerment, the pedagogy of multiculturalism, and our paradoxical moral code of nonjudgmentalism. What makes for happiness and fulfillment—and here we enter into the metaphysical dream that defines our era—is an Empire of Desire…The deepest moral law, therefore, is to be true to oneself.

However, Reno clarifies that Christianity has a far different view of our desires:

St. Augustine saw that original sin perverts our desires, making them stubbornly ordered toward self-love. Moreover, he saw that we are destined for something higher than the natural nobility of Aristotle’s well-trained soul. Fellowship with God extends beyond our natural possibilities. Therefore, we need a divine repair of our disordered desires, as well as a pedagogy that takes us beyond this world. Faith, hope, and love stretch the soul upward. They are, as St. Thomas put it centuries later, supernatural virtues.

As St. Augustine says—and as our everyday experience in the world should confirm—our desires are unreliable guides. They are twisted by sin and self-interest. We need, as Reno says, “divine repair of our disordered desires.” Beyond that we need a norm unto which to strive—not just a law, but a vision of virtue which can “stretch the soul upward” to God himself.

“You do you” cannot be compatible with the Christian worldview specifically because it excludes God from the equation. Who we are is not ultimately defined by our personal desires—it is ultimately defined by the one who created and redeemed us.  While “you do you” speaks to the narcissism of our culture, God calls us out of ourselves into a higher calling defined by the One True King. The apostle Paul offers a more helpful vision of who we are to strive to be that neither precludes individuality nor establishes autonomy when he says,

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Our students swim in a culture that prizes individual autonomy and personal desire at every turn. While at times it feels like fighting against the current, at Providence we seek to teach our students to prize God’s authority in determining right and wrong and the redemptive power of his Spirit to lead them to live in accordance with that Word.

Mr. Kyle A. Keating, Upper School Bible and Theology Teacher/Athletic Director