The Moral Psychology of David Brooks

David Brooks’ column on neo-sentimentalist moral psychology is as exasperating as most of his columns drawing on science. They usually go like this:

Scientists have discovered X. Mostly X vanquishes my intellectual bugbears and confirms me in my prejudices. To the extent it doesn’t, science isn’t really an authoritative source of wisdom, now is it?

Here’s this week’s variation:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

Let’s look more closely at a couple of these claims.

  • The rise of "the emotional approach to morality” … “challenges the new atheists.”

What? Pure silliness. There is nothing whatsoever about the new sentimentalism in moral psychology that begins to imply a vindication of faith relative to reason. This is scientific work that uses the rationalist methods of science to understand the centrality of sentiment in humans. It takes the power of reason for granted, and if it is successful work, then it validates the power of reason.

If, say, Haidt is right that most moral judgments are ex post rationalizations of prior emotional responses, then he has not shown that all judgments are ex post rationalizations of prior emotional responses. For example, scientific judgments aren’t like that, or else he wouldn’t have discovered this about moral judgment, he’d just be asserting it. It’s not like Haidt, in showing just how deeply feeling-laden our moral judgments are, has also shown that everything, including the techniques of scientific rationality, is an expression of prejudice. By providing yet another well-grounded scientific explanation, he has demonstrated once again that techniques of scientific rationality are successfully explanatory. In this case, a successful explanation of human moral judgment shows just how prone we are to argue reflexively on behalf of our enculturated moral intuitions. This should decrease our confidences in our intuitions relative to scientific rationality. There is no reason whatsoever to think this will make faith look rosier.

Now, if we think that the lesson here is that most people, who aren’t scientists, don’t change their minds due to good arguments, but because of some kind of socialization or cultural pressure, then it seems to me that the efforts of the “new atheists” have been shown to be all the more necessary. The norms of reason are not native. They are fragile cultural achievements, which makes them all the more precious, and all the more important to vigorously promote. It seems we ought to create social pressure to adopt and respect them, as the “new atheists” do, if we wish to continue to reap the enormous blessings of applied rationality. Brooks is right to see the “new atheists” as apostles of  reason, but their “faith” in it isn’t “unwarranted.” As Brooks seems to recognize when it is convenient for him, science — the institutions of applied reason — works.

  • The rise of “the emotional approach to morality” … “should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central.”

First, everything I just said. Second, they just got good at explaining judgments about harm and fairness, so why not expect them to get good at this other stuff? Everything Brooks has said up to this point assumes that the science is good, so one would expect that. But this is where Brooks kicks up a cloud of mystery to leave space for his own prejudices after he has finished using a bit of science to serve his ideological purposes. It’s a good trick: Grant science just enough authority to make it say what you need it to, and then throw that authority into doubt, lest someone else come along and try to make it say something else. Third, I don’t think Brooks has been paying attention even to the people he cites, such as Haidt, who has gone a good way in explaining the religious emotions, the emotions of in-group solidarity (i.e., patriotism) and more.

13 thoughts on “The Moral Psychology of David Brooks”

  1. Atheism is not a project. It has no aims; it proceeds towards no ends. There is no logical connection between a personal absence of belief and a desire to spread that absence. I am an atheist, my neighbors or not. Who cares? To the extent that they might want to govern public policy in accord with religious doctrine, I'll oppose them; but joined in that opposition are many theists. Indeed, I find many progressive Christians among the most full-throated opponents of the encroachment of religion into the public square. The desire to keep public policy removed from religion is in no way more logical for an atheist than it is for a theist, and many proceed under exactly that understanding. Absent of those questions of religion intruding on public policy, there is no reason for an atheist to want to convert anyone, indeed no reason whatsoever to care, and to think that there is demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism, religion and liberty.

  2. Will, I agree with most of what you write, but you miss a point on the new atheists on which Brooks may have been insightful. Presumably it is true of the beliefs of atheists as it is of theists that their reasoned judgments about gods grow from an emotional response. This is not anything about vindicating faith relative to reason – Brooks doesn't exactly make this claim, though he seems to want it. Brooks does suggest that atheists beliefs are likely similarly consistent with their emotional responses (as believers with the believers' emotions), and as such atheists should not over-credit the role reason plays in personal beliefs.I don't know if I'm a “new atheist”, and “old atheist,” or just a plain atheist, but my experience seems fairly typical at least in general outline: raised in a religious tradition (in my case LDS) and taught to associate certain feelings with beliefs about god, coming to a period in which the religion no longer felt right to me, and calling myself “agnostic”, and subsequently feeling that “agnostic” didn't feel right either, and calling myself “atheist.”But just as I don't want to over-credit the role of reason in the acquisition of personal beliefs, I wouldn't want to underrate the role of reason in scientific endeavors.

  3. Sam Harris–one of the prominenet “new atheists” Brooks refers to–wrote a response to Haidt for Edge. And, really, it's a fantastically bad piece and, yes, Harris is vulnerable exactly as Brooks says.

  4. Sometimes we fail to recognize the mongrel philosophy we naturally develop throughout life if a concerted effort is not made to consciously develop a non-contradictory philosophy of life — these value-judgements, as Nathaniel Branden pointed out, are part and parcel of an unconscious, or semi-conscious philosophy, and emotions are the reactions which place values of good and bad — when we interface with some aspect of reality, the emotional response is so lightning quick it seems as if the emotions are the decision makers, the controller, yet behind the emotion is the value-judgement, and it many cases these value-judgements aren't re-evaluated through reason in adulthood. In the not fully developed mind, emotional morality exists, but in the fully developing mind, reason is used to slow the process between stimulus and reaction to reassess the value judgements so that we aren't slaves to the unconscious and the attendant emotions.I think this was Branden's point, if i remember correctly — I have grown accustomed to using reason, so I'm not as driven by emotions as I once was. So any belief system, religious or atheistic, unexamined by reason is a faulty guide. Plus, what does Brooks make of morality developed in groups which oppress women, or find human sacrifice emotionally appealing?

  5. While I agree with you that Atheists shouldn't care about converting others (and I am an atheist, and I really don't care). I think you and I are free riders on the argumentative atheism of others. Their pathological need to convert others makes them look unreasonable and extreme, while we look like sensible moderates by comparison. Without these atheists storming around, the religious types (who really are distrustful of atheists of all stripes) end up focusing on the “unhinged” Dawkins/Hitchens types, instead of attacking people like us.

  6. Damn it, Will, I was planning on ripping Brooks a new one over this latest travesty of his. But you've already done it with your characteristic skill and flair. Sigh. Oh well. Nicely done!The only things I might add are these. First, Brooks is acting like this is revelatory stuff, when in fact philosophers have worried about this very issue since at least Hume, who famously said that reason is, and ought to be, the handmaid to the passions, or words to that effect. And as you pointed out, even if this is what most non-philosophers do, it hardly follows that this is what everybody does, or should do, or is capable of doing. He should do some reading on the Naturalistic Fallacy.Second, given the close tie between ethics and politics, I'm wondering how Brooks would characterize his own enterprise as a political commentator. If reason is truly impotent as the medium for discourse, wouldn't that make political commentating sort of useless? Unless, perhaps, he sees it as his job to appeal to people's emotions to get them on board with whatever he believes in. But that sounds more like a propagandist, or at best, an advertiser, than a public intellectual, which surely is more how Brooks would like to see himself.

  7. Jason – What Hume is reported to have blurted out (in the pub, after the seminar) is that the passions were a hand-job to reason. But he was always a cut-up, The Great infidel. Especially on his third dram.Will – Outstanding journalism. Really. No hold bared applause here. Only … a pretty cheap target for your lede, no? Brooks is a conventional chap, writing for a very conventional broadsheet. He's stretching to defend the marbled gates of his magenta-tie convention against the metaphysical barbarians led by Harris/Dawkins/Dennet(most acutely) and Hitchens (who is truly the Samuel Johnson of our day – would that he had a Boswell!) Why not push this critique (of the way 'science' is viewed as good when it accords with one's own ideology) into … say … global climate change? Or second-hand smoke? Or money-illusion and what it implies to Hayek's ideas as to how prices convey information?Further, I withdraw my earlier poking about the utility of research into the human mind that post-dated the 18th century. I would recommend Hauser's _Moral_Minds_ to you. Also – coming to Halifax in August?

  8. […] Will Wilkinson, Massimo Pigliucci, and Mark Liberman have all been beating up on David Brooks’ recent column on philosophy and moral psychology. Will’s post, especially, is great, because it nabs the general formula Brooks’ columns seem to be taking, but all the posts miss the biggest flaw in Brooks’ argument. See how he opens it: 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… […]

  9. I don't think that's quite complete. There are other cases that spring to mind from personal experience.One pressing reason I might want to 'push' atheism is if I think someone's religious faith is doing them more harm than good. A friend of mine was concerned over his violation of – what I would say were – some rather anti-human precepts of the catholic faith. So over a few evenings we walked our way through the theology and the philosophy of religion (a little, dare I say, more critically than the person who taught him 'religious studies A-level' had done) and he eventually decided he didn't really believe it after all, and over time has ceased to worry himself about such things. I'd like to think I did my friend a service, and in any event would do the same in other conditions.Another reason I might want to 'push' atheism is if someone asks me. For better or worse certain positions I held at university marked me out as a 'known atheist', and every so often strangers would send me messages and the like saying 'I'm having doubts about my religion, what do you think I should do'. In each case I told them basically the same things: I told them why I didn't believe what they were being taught, gave them some book recommendations and encouraged them to keep going to their church or whatever anyway to decide for themselves whether they could reconcile their changing worldview with their religious practice. Lacking follow-ups I don't know if it resulted in no change at all (it was a wobble) or a partial (Anglicanism where once there was Evangelicalism) or total deconversion but I don't think my time was wasted either way.Finally there's the claim that you might feel free to scoff at but which has been pushed by a large number of atheists and which I am tempted to endorse that given the atheistic worldview appears to me at least to be the correct one, there are certain aesthetic reasons for holding it rather than an alternative variously summed up by colloquial expressions such as 'living in the real world', 'not kidding yourself' and so on. Now, right enough this isn't going to push me on a massive crusade to 'deconvert the heathens' but nevertheless if it's someone that's close to me, I think there's a case for thinking it's my 'non-christian duty' to encourage them to question their religious convictions. Indeed, to think otherwise seems to me to be a little patronising. I would like to think that if I structured my life around an idea, and there were people out there with (what they take to be) good reasons for thinking that my idea is false, then if they care about me they'll do me the courtesy of telling me what those reasons are rather than just shrugging their shoulders and saying 'they seem happy enough'.So, while I agree with what you are saying up to a point I really think there are cases where a bit of 'preaching the bad news' might well be called for.Best wishes,Duncan Crowe.

  10. Well if you read… I think it's chapter 7 of The End of Faith; the chapter about his preventing what appeared to be a rape taking place in Prague, Sam comes across very obviously as a) a moral realist and b) one with strongly Kantian overtones, which is to say a moral rationalist. If that picture is accurate then Sam is one of those whose conception of morality is being most directly challenged by the work that folks like Haidt and Greene are doing. But that doesn't have much to do with his atheism; indeed it doesn't seem to have much to do with the 'prudential ought' as opposed to the 'moral ought'. So, I ought not to torture people. Why? Because it's a bad thing to do. That would be a moral ought, and if the sentimentalist is right then thinking that thought cincerely and acting upon it requires an appropriate sentimental setup as regards torturing which may or may not be innate and may or may not be culturally universal and which psychopaths appear to lack the capacity to form for whatever reason and so on. But not tortuing people in open view of a community who will run me out of town or worse for doing it; saying I ought not to do that seems to stray closer to being a 'prudential ought'. That is, it's still governed by the same affective processes as seem to be behind all action (Damasio) and to a certain extent requires the 'desire' to want to save my own skin, but that's a desire that all of humanity has other things being equal – psychopaths have it; it may even be a presumption we use in interpreting the actions of people in the first place (I'm thinking of Donald Davidson's discussions of interpretation if you're familiar with the philosophical literature). It seems to me there's a pretty strong case for thinking that 'epistemic norms' will fall into the latter camp. After all, 'wanting one's beliefs to be true' might be a 'desire' according to some ways of describing things, but it's so basic that I think it's legitimate to presume all people share in it. So if the worst charge that can be leveled against the new atheists is they go about saying 'you ought not to believe in Christianity' but neo-sentimentalism has shown that all 'oughts' need to be grounded in desires so it presupposes a desire for one's worldview to be correct… I don't think it's a particularly strong charge.All that's just a roundabout way of saying that it doesn't make any less sense to say to people 'you ought not to believe in the truth of Christianity' (or for that matter, it being topical 'you ought not to beleive in the Easter bunny') in light of the research on sentimentalism, the worst that happens is you have to tell a longer story about what that claim means and what you're presupposing about the desires of your audience.

  11. “I would recommend Hauser's _Moral_Minds_ to you. “If you're interested in the philosophical side of the arguments, incidentally there are good papers to be had on Joshua Greene's website, Stephen Stich's Jean Nicod lectures on the subject are online here;… and the following books are excellentAppiah – Experimental EthicsNichols – Sentimental RulesPrinz – The Emotional Construction of MoralsP.S. – To be fair on Hume, he was on doctors orders to drink a pint of claret every day. Sadly you don't hear about that being given out as a cure for depression on the NHS these days.

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