Sverdlik on Brooks on Moral Philosophy


Steve Sverdlik has given us a cogent commentary on today’s Op Ed column by David Brooks. I particularly like Steve’s reference to researchers/theorists who are squaring the evolutionary argument for altruism and empathy with the (broader? more traditional?) evolutionary processes of competition and natural selection. (It’s still a jungle out there!) I hope readers of this blog will read both.

I don’t expect a newspaper columnist — even one who writes for The New York Times — to break much new ground in a 700-word essay. My reaction to Brooks’ piece was sure, most of us make snap judgments all the time about the morality of decisions and actions. We appear to be hard-wired for this type of work. But I really believe that these hundreds and possibly thousands of daily moral intuitions are not just biologically determined (“in our DNA”) but that they are conditioned by experience and rational thought, which have the potential (to continue the metaphor) at least to alter the voltages and possibly even to rewire the moral infrastructure.

On this model, rational thought doesn’t simply provide the window dressing for our moral conclusions; it also shapes them. This is the only way I’ve come up with to explain what happens when our intuitions produce contradictory conclusions (a good example of which is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “The Trolley Problem”), or what happens when intuitive moral judgments produce counter-inuitive results, or what it means to “change our mind” about the morality of a particular decision or act. So the question that is important to me is not, as Brooks puts it, “what shapes moral emotions in the first place” (as important as that question is), but what shapes them in the second and third place.

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