Thursday, April 09, 2009

David Brooks: Philosophical Mohel

So David Brooks has been getting a lot of well deserved flack for his latest column in the New York Times proclaiming the end of philosophy (see, e.g. JCasey, Helmut and Hilzoy)

David Brooks has discovered social psychology. When making moral judgments, we do not deliberate but act in accord with emotional reactions that are almost immediately summoned by situations. This, to Brooks is news and spells the end of philosophy, or at least ethics. All of the real philosophers out there, after sighing and rolling their eyes, try to explain that sentiment has been a part of the discussion surrounding ethical theory since at least Hume and aestethic/ethical sensibilities since Aristotle. They then set out the fact/value distinction in which simply because we DO tend to act in a certain way does not meant we OUGHT to act in that way and that rational thought can help us condition ourselves to act better. Follow the links for this argument made well, so I will work through it no further.

What I want to comment upon is the fact that Brooks thinks this is a novel insight. I think he is being honest here because one of the hallmarks of contemporary conservatism is a blindness to social science. As I've discussed before, the central axiom of Reaganism, "personal responsibility" is really an attempt to say that sociology does not exist. There are no social factors at work influencing us one way or another. If I am wealthy, it is because I am virtuous, not because there were certain factors at work that put a wind in my social sail. And anyone who is poor is by definition lazy and undeserving of help, we cannot look at all to social factors to explain why certain groups are where they are.

Such an explanation, if cogent, would imply that different policies would affect the structure and help people. If we can help, then we ought to. So, simply deny the existence of psychology and sociology (unless you have Charles Murray who cooks the books to say it wouldn't help anyway). It is, in large part, a reaction against Marxism which places too much emphasis on the effect of the structure, as a neo-Hegelian would, downplaying the role of the individual; something the classical liberal perspective that is the root of American conservatism will not tolerate.

But I see worth in Brooks' column. It is an important development in the fracturing of the 20th century conservative movement. Yes, Brooks draws the wrong conclusion from what is interesting research (read Cass Sunstein's book Infotopia, if you want a good discussion about social psychological results and their effects on models of deliberation -- there are problems with his discussion, but not trivial ones), but he is a conservative who is just starting to wrestle with the complexities that those of us on the left have been thinking about for about a century and a half. How do you account for the effects of our individual wiring and the large scale, largely ossified structure of society and find ways to affect positive moral change? It is not only a hard question, in some sense it is THE hard question. It is the question that gives birth to modern ethics. The end of philosophy? No, my dear Brooksy, it is the birth of it. By trying to cut it short right after its birth, perhaps we ought to think of David Brooks as the philosophical mohel.