David Brooks on Moral Philosophy


I am not used to opening the morning paper and seeing an op-ed piece on general issues in moral philosophy. But today’s New York Times has such a piece by David Brooks .


Brooks reads widely. He is aware that many philosophers these days are sympathetic to the arguments of psychologists and cognitive scientists that suggest that many moral reactions are fundamentally emotional, not rational.

These arguments are not new. Francis Hutcheson wrote in 1725 that “the author of nature” was wise enough not to require human beings to go through “long chains of deductions” to determine what is right and wrong. Instead, he wrote, God “has given us strong affections to be the springs of each virtuous action, and made Virtue a lovely form.” We immediately and directly find things like generosity and justice to be admirable; just as immediately, we are repulsed by cruelty and disloyalty.

Of course a tremendous amount of sophisticated investigation of moral thought and reactions is now going on, using techniques Hutcheson could not have imagined. For example, we can monitor the blood flow in the brains of people who are thinking about certain moral dilemmas! Like Brooks I find much of this to be fascinating and suggestive.

There are two points in Brooks that I’d take issue with. He suggests that the recent work challenges ‘the new atheists’, who “have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason.” As an atheist (though maybe not a ‘new’ one) I fully accept a version of Hutcheson’s point: a decent society needs to have people in it who immediately recoil from cruelty and are moved by acts of self-sacrifice and courage. We all know that there are knotty problems in ethics that require thought and careful analysis, but much of our everyday life does not.

Brooks also knows of the interesting work by evolutionary theorists suggesting that ‘group selection’ can produce cooperation and altruism. But he probably underplays the extent to which it can also lead to violence and exploitation of non-group members.

Elliott Sober is a very distinguished philosopher of biology. (He is coming to SMU next Monday to speak in our Darwin series.) In a superb book on the evolution of altruism, Unto Others, which he co-authored with David Wilson, they write:

Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection; rather, it provides an additional setting in which competition can occur. (p. 9)

Taking account of these two points together probably requires both thought and feeling. We need to figure out how to make the ‘strong affections’ that we tend to feel for people in our own groups govern our relations to those distant and different from us.

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