Wednesday, April 8, 2009

David Brooks on moral reasoning vs. moral instincts

David Brooks's latest column claims that we're undergoing a revolution in how we think about morality. The whole column is well worth reading, though I have a lot of disagreements with it.

Here's a basic outline of his argument:

1. Philosophers have traditionally assumed that "moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it."

2. But "[t]oday, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. . . . Moral judgments . . . are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong."

3. "The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions."

4. Brooks (who's normally referred to as a conservative) says this new understanding represents "an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning." (In a clever twist ending, Brooks explains how it should even "challenge the very scientists who study morality.")

Here's my response (these numbers do not correspond to the above numbers):

1. The column seems derivative of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink ("rapid intuitive decisions ... snap moral judgments"), and shares one of its main drawbacks. As Gladwell himself concedes, it's problematic to hinge everything on gut feelings. If those, and not deliberative reasoning, are the best guide to truth, then how can you confidently say that racism, sexism, or homophobia are immoral? After all, many people's instincts are bigoted.

Brooks seems to recognize this when he says:

There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions.
So he's saying that our emotions and instincts have moral validity except when they don't. That's limitedly helpful.

2. Brooks lists about 10 or 20 different values and, following the fashion among present-day intellectuals, announces with a flourish that they're all rooted in evolution. There's reason -- but also emotions! There's competition -- but also cooperation! Individuals -- community! And to make sure you remember that Brooks is a conservative, he lists "loyalty, respect, traditions, religions."

Well, if you list enough different facets of human behavior and attribute all of them to "evolution," it's almost a foregone conclusion that you can find moral goodness somewhere in evolution.

But Brooks isn't just taking nature as he finds it. Even assuming he's correct in everything he describes as evolutionary, there are also lots of evil behavior that are easy to explain in evolutionary terms (a few examples spring to mind: theft, rape, murder, war). One way or another, he has to sift through the good and bad in order to isolate what he considers good.

How can he do that if he doesn't have some preconception of what's good?

For instance, he says:
The evolutionary approach ... leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.
Now, in that sentence, he's clearly viewing morality as much more than just a bundle of "aesthetic" reactions. He has a set of fundamental concepts ("individual responsibility," "goodness . . . as an end in itself"), and he's using them to analyze what kind of behavior counts as morally good.

Isn't there a term for that approach? Isn't it called "moral philosophy"? Or "moral reasoning"?

As much as he might like to draw a clear line between his view of morality vs. what "philosophers" do by using "reason," he himself is doing philosophy and relying on reason.

3. His premise that "psychologists" and "cognitive scientists" have corrected our previous view of morality is highly suspect. Even if you have perfect empirical information about how people form moral views, that doesn't necessarily tell you whether the views are right or wrong. But it's hard for me to say much more about this without seeing the specific studies he's thinking of.

[UPDATE: Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings makes the same point and goes into much greater depth than I've done here. Sample: "the research Brooks cites does not show what he seems to think it does, since the question how we make moral judgments on the fly is not, and does not answer, questions about the role of reasoning in morality."]

4. Brooks predictably caricatures the "new atheists" without engaging with any of their actual arguments. As with his general attack on moral philosophy, this critique is painted with such a broad brush that the result is analogous to one of those huge paintings that's just a solid color. We're told they rely too much on "reason" -- but where exactly has their reasoning gone wrong? It's hard to imagine that Brooks has actually read Hitchens's God Is Not Great, which explains how atheists can have the "feelings of awe [and] transcendence" that Brooks describes, or Sam Harris's The End of Faith, which embraces spirituality and acknowledges that a world filled with nothing but "reason" would be a cold and barren place.

UPDATE: More critiques of Brooks's column by John Schwenkler (The American Scene), Will Wilkinson, and PZ Meyers (Pharyngula). Meyers says:
I strongly urge that Mr Brooks try using his cerebral cortex in addition to his brain stem and hypothalamus when writing — that's another of those areas where emotional prejudices need to be supplemented with reason and knowledge.
And here's a cartoon about it! (Via Language Log.)

IN THE COMMENTS: My dad and I try to figure out what was really going on with Brooks's column.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Between you and Hilzoy, John, you’ve settled Brooks’ philosophical hash, but I admire his willingness to address this kind of topic in the rushed, compressed genre of the newspaper column, opening up moral reasoning to public discussion.

Something that intrigues me is the fact that Brooks’ piece has been #1 on the NYT most-emailed list since yesterday. It’s nice to think that masses of readers are seriously engaging with the question of whether their moral views are based in reason. Less encouragingly, I wonder whether the column appeals to people in large part because it lets them off the hook of moral reasoning. Our moral decisions are based in emotion – hurray! They’re equivalent to aesthetic choices – cool! That means we can like whatever we want. Such a response would be moral relativism in the extreme, and not the kind of morality I imagine Brooks favors.

What does he favor – where is he coming from? The following is pure speculation. I think he’s trying to achieve a balanced synthesis of intellect and emotion rather than rejecting reason as the foundation of morality; unfortunately, in the nature of journalism, he waves the flag of one side – the side with more immediate popular appeal -- more vigorously than the other and leaves little room for appreciation of nuance. One nuance: the piece contains a hidden irony in that, as you point out, it uses reason to challenge reason. (Whether you think Brooks’ reasoning is persuasive is a separate question.) This shows up especially in the final paragraph, where he challenges evolutionary scientists to reason about their explanations and about aspects of moral life that go beyond their explanations. This is a clever twist, as you say: Brooks backsteps into a conservative position after he’s embraced the trendy Gladwellian relativist one. Perhaps he senses that the emotionalist position is in the vanguard and he wants to be acceptable to the vanguard, but as its conservative conscience, reminding the Romantics about the Enlightenment virtues of “loyalty, respect, traditions, religions.”

So I think one thing Brooks wants is to position himself provocatively and winningly on the liberal-conservative spectrum. He’s done that in many columns on national and international issues, and here he’s stretching into the arena of science and philosophy.

He’s also offering his readers a comfortable view of ourselves, “a warmer view of human nature” as social, cooperative, and not pharisaical (or Talmudic, as he put it). (Brooks is Jewish, by the way.) Fine with me, if it leads to a more peaceful, just, and kind society. He’s creating a usable past, moral-philosophy division: a myth of who we are, intended to improve us. What will the unintended consequences be?

PS: Titles with the form “The End of…” usually signal the imminent arrival of superficial trendy blather, but in fairness to Brooks, they’re often supplied by the editor, not the writer.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I think a lot of it has to do with Brooks's temperament and profession. He's an open-minded intellectual who gets easily excited about writing columns that announce revolutions in the way society thinks about such-and-such an issue. (Luckily for him, these revolutions seem to come along at a steady pace of about twice a week.)

So he probably read about some empirical findings on morality, reason, and emotions. He realized that there's a tension between them and some of the most famous moral theories -- most obviously Kant and utilitarianism. And this got him excited about writing a column announcing that the new empirical studies signify the end of moral philosophy as we know it.

But then he thought more carefully about things and realized that it's not so simple. You still need to apply reason and consistent principles; sometimes our instinctive reactions can be misguided; and so on.

But he was still excited about getting a column out of his idea. So he figured he could disseminate the basic idea (prominently placed at the top of the piece) but still be intellectually honest by including the nuanced qualifications (buried deep in the piece). Hence this strangely incoherent column.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I should add that I'm actually very sympathetic to the observation that Kant and utilitarianism are both too rigidly based on reason and inconsistent with our emotional reactions to specific situations. I plan to post about this in the future, but I don't have time for it here.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I think you're right on the money in your first reply to my comment. I'm not qualified to have a view on your second reply, since I've never so much as taken a philosophy course. (This keeps me from having to express views when I don't want to, but doesn't keep me from expressing views when I want to.)

I wonder how Brooks feels about the -- perhaps surprising -- amount of response his piece has attracted, and about how negative that response has been in some quarters. (And I wonder whether the response is mostly negative or positive among the NYT readers who've been emailing the column.)

John Althouse Cohen said...

I wonder how Brooks feels about the -- perhaps surprising -- amount of response his piece has attracted, and about how negative that response has been in some quarters.

According to the NYT's own webpage, it's currently the #2 most "blogged" in the Times. I have to assume that Brooks is aware of some of the blog posts pointing out that he commits the "naturalistic fallacy." It's hard to imagine he hasn't realized this point.