This is a response to David Brooks’ column in the New York Times, today: “The End of Philosophy”. Other respondees include PZ Myers, Brian Leiter, James Smith, bottumupchange, Mark Liberman, and chaospet (who does a very nice cartoon summarising many of the problems with Brooks’ column).
Hume once wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be, slave to the passions”. By this he meant that reason is motivated by a moral sense, but at the same time Hume also wrote that one cannot derive a statement of “ought” from a statement of “is”, which attempts at naturalising morality G. E. Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy“. It seems that pundits are relieved of knowing any philosophy, especially if they are conservatives, because Brooks clearly knows less about this subject than the average first year undergraduate.
I will not comment on the headline – that is a subeditor’s fault. But Brooks is wrong straight out of the gate:
Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.
Ah, this must be the newly discovered writings of Socrates Brooks is relying upon, since that is quite the opposite of how Plato, and even the other less sympathetic sources portray Socrates and his method. Socrates – if we believe Plato – thought that we already knew moral principles, and that reason was a matter of rediscovering and properly classifying (as a butcher does, cutting nature at its joints, Phaedrus 265d?266a). He was no simple rationalist, and anyone who has read philosophy should know that.
But Brooks wants a world of us and thems, blacks and whites, dare we say it, virtuous and sinful. So he’s setting up a contrast between those who he sees as rationalists (those lefties who think things through to absurd conclusions) and intuitionists (conservatives who just know what the Good is). This sort of distinction is old, and the mere fact that Brooks is employing scientific claims – those of evolutionary psychology – to base the claim of moral intuition on doesn’t change the fact that Brooks is really just dipping his foot in the shallow end of an old debate.
How old? Well the modern version of this begins more or less around the Enlightenment, which all conservatives dislike on general principles. The Anglophonic origin is Jeremy Bentham’s radical revision of education, moral reasoning, politics, and logic in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Utilitarians, however, also held there is an intuitive moral good and evil, and guess what? it is two of Hume’s passions: pleasure and pain.
The evolutionary account of morality is not justificatory, even if we do accept the work Brooks cites as supporting there being moral capacities we all share. One of the implications of the biological view is that there are those who don’t share the same capacities; such as psychopaths and sociopaths: do we now have no basis for rejecting them? That is why the Naturalistic Fallacy is problematic. It leads to a biological, and to an extent also a sociological, relativism. Unfortunately Brooks cannot find the warm comfortable moral agency he needs to defend whatever status quo he’s defending this week on News Hour in biology, because biological properties are distributed over populational curves.
It is probably true that moral reasoning and moral action are distinct. It is also probably true that moral reasoning is mostly post hoc. Probably all reasoning about actions is post hoc, as experiments have shown for decades that actions precede intentions by a substantial number of milliseconds. But reasoning is not, I believe, an individualistic activity. We are not computers that work out what to do and then do it, but we are computers that talk about what to do, both before actions are undertaken and after they are done. Reason is a social activity, and philosophy is the most explicit form of that (yes, especially the Talmudic variety Brooks disparages – antisemitic much?).
And there’s the obligatory dig against the “new atheists” of conservative blather. How dare they reason about God, when we in control want everyone to just believe; populations that are of one mind are so much easier to manipulate into wars and social vendettas. But Brooks, being philosophically incompetent, fails to realise the tu quoque here – if moral senses and hence religious decisions are the end product of biology, then so, too, is new atheism. Some proportion of the population will be atheists. Hadn’t the conservatives better come to terms with this sometime soon, instead of fighting a 200 year old war again, and again, and again…?
One has to ask – when are pundits going to be abandoned by the mainstream media? It is far better to get people who actually know what they are talking about to write op-eds. Expecting people who long ago ran out of anything interesting to say to be right, let alone deep, is futile. If you want critical analysis, employ the critics. Brian Leiter, for example. Or one of the many professional philosophers, all of whom have taught undergraduates and can communicate, who are critical of the evolutionary psychological approach to morals.