I have been stirred from my cave by reading a piece of Spring madness by David Brooks. With the catchy headline The End of Philosophy Brooks turns out a column of such ill-reasoned sophistry that it roused me from my long hiatus.
In the first two sentences Brooks manages to diss Socrates while he incorrectly describes what Socrates was all about. That’s unforgivable for someone writing for the Times and I wonder what his editor was thinking in publishing it.
In the tradition of all good sophists, Brooks’ real target turns out not to be philosophy nor Socrates but rational morality. Brooks argues that morality derives from subjective impressions, myriad emotional responses to the many situations we encounter that all add up to judgments of good and bad.
But it’s not until we reach the last paragraph that we find out just why Brooks has embarked on this particular Op Ed assault.
“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.”
Ah, so you don’t have to explain things as long as you feel them.
This is not an attack on philosophy or rational morality, it is an attack on reason, an attack on science, and, by association, an attack on the man who leads our country, Barack Obama, a man of intellect and reason who has declared that he will return science to a rightful place of prominence in our decision making.
Brooks’s piece is good-old American conservatism masquerading as learned philosophical analysis.
Brooks says that Socrates believed “moral thinking” to be “mostly a matter of reason and deliberation.” Well, yes, that would be moral thinking wouldn’t it. Moral feeling would be something else, right? A nice sophist twist.
But what did Socrates really do that Brooks is so afraid of? Socrates tried to encourage people to examine their feelings as a way of understanding whether they were really valid feelings, or just learned biases and prejudices. Isn’t this essential to living as a conscious and sensible human being. If not, we could just defend any action or moral judgment by saying “that’s what I feel, I don’t need to examine it.”
I don’t disagree that we tend to judge and act from an accummulated store of moral impressions, but that ignores the fact that moral strides, great and small, come through reflection and bold conviction. The person who reflects on his or her past actions and decides that he must change. The activist who speaks out in eloquent defense of a new morality (e.g., abolishing slavery) and persuades people to the reason and rightness of his cause.
Moral code is painted in broad brush strokes. For the most part we agree on the way these strokes are painted. But we can only disagree or change our moral code by engaging in a rational debate, either with ourselves or as a society.
Finally, morality as a concept, which Socrates encouraged people to seek for themselves, does indeed have an objective basis. Whether we like it or not, our fundamental moral objective is to continue to persist as individuals, as a society, as a species, and as an integrated part of the universe. As we progress morally over time we tend to come closer to this objective standard. (more…)