Evolving Thoughts

The End of Punditry

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.

Added link: Massimo Pigliucci. RAzib. A thoughtful response from Edward Song.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 jeff
    April 8, 2009

    As others have pointed out, ethics is a subset of philosophy. But I also take exception to this idea of the snap-judgment, emotionally-centered basis for action and what we perceive as rational thinking. It may be true for some more than others, and most would say that all thought is limited by individual neurophysiology. What you cannot think about, you must remain silent on. But to deny the role of critical thinking altogether – even just for moral judgement, is surely wrong. We’ve all seen cartoons where the protagonist is making a moral decision, with a devilish version of himself on one shoulder and an angelic version on the other – a metaphor for internal argument and critical thinking. I suspect nearly everyone understands that metaphor, and therefore nearly everyone has experienced an internal moral battle of some kind or another.

  2. #2 DSKS
    April 9, 2009

    I hadn’t seen this op ed. I can’t quite decide if its funny ha-ha or funny peculiar, or maybe both. It’s rare that you see a conservative, even a moderate, appeal to Social Darwinism, and yet when you get right to the heart of it that’s really what Brooks is doing here: advocating for the authority of evolved – and rather primitive – instinct over any objective and external code.

    “Probably all reasoning about actions is post hoc, as experiments have shown for decades that actions precede intentions by a substantial number of milliseconds.”

    I think you’re overinterpreting the science, here. It’s certainly an iffy subject as to what degree such findings apply beyond rapid decision making (which does appear to have a profound unconscious component). Clearly, humans can and frequently do assess and sometimes overrule their more immediate judgments as result of rational consideration of external factors, and do so in a manner that, at least appears, to be conscious. Of course, whether we make a rational decisions and subsequent actions consciously or unconsciously (and there is nothing to say that the brain cannot make rational decisions under the radar of our consciousness) is besides the point; it’s still “us” making the decision. The idea that any decision made by an unconscious part of the brain is somehow outside of the responsibility of the “I” – that we can really “act” before we “think” – is born of a fundamental misunderstanding inre the nature of cognition, imho. In fact, I think such thinking appeals to a formal fallacy that should be given a name if it doesn’t already have one.

  3. #3 David Payne
    April 9, 2009

    Brooks’ hackneyed view of rational vs irrational is best exemplified by the old Star Trek characters Spock and McCoy. Mr. Spock was of a race, the Vulcans, who suppressed emotions in favor of reason, and is taken by many, to be a picture of true rationality. McCoy, on the other hand, was an emotional geyser. Brooks sees both scientists and the “new atheists,” as Spocks, devoid of emotion. But this is a straw man. In fact, it is this very point that the information he gives us is designed to show. Brooks’ article is incoherent because he maintains this antiquated view even while espousing evidence that refutes it! (see above link)

  4. #4 Jimmy Little
    April 9, 2009

    Your aside “(yes, especially the Talmudic variety Brooks disparages – antisemitic much?)” rather puzzles me. Brooks — who’s Jewish — has been dinged in the past for anti-anti-semitism, and to say something’s Talmudic doesn’t strike me as any more antisemitic than saying something’s Jesuitical is anti-Catholic.

    In any case, for all his admitted woolly-headedness on certain issues, Brooks isn’t yer stereotypical American conservative, and I’ve been somewhat taken aback at the casual putdowns on other blogs of a commentator who is, in comparison to most right-wingers, both liberal and thoughtful. Oh well…

  5. #5 MPL
    April 9, 2009

    I expect to hear more “morality is the result of evolution” talk coming from the Right in the future, because it could help fend off the “morality is social convention” argument, which I assume a conservative would think is worse (convention changes much faster than genes).

  6. #6 Greg
    April 13, 2009

    Morality IS the result of social convention………………which is the result of evolution.