Wednesday, April 8, 2009



Three days ago, David Brooks published a popular editorial in the New York Times entitled “The End of Philosophy.” See N.Y. Times April 6, 2009. In it, he argues that new studies concerning morality have “[challenged] the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people.” He bases his conclusion on “new” research that links moral theories with “human emotion” rather than “abstract reasoning,” and the fact that moral rules arise because people “just know things” when they see them. He also concludes that moral rules descend to us because human beings are “successful cooperators” who naturally praise values such as loyalty, cohesion and “tradition.” Viewing these developments, he concludes that moral rules show that human beings seek “goodness as an end in itself” rather than “a means.” In sum, he labels these developments an “epochal change.”

At the outset, I was impressed that Mr. Brooks stepped into the age-old philosophical debate about morality. Yet there is nothing new about his assertion that human morality derives from “emotion” rather than reason. In truth, morality has little to do with rational postulation. Instead, as I have written many times before, morality represents nothing more than a particular society’s long-held social beliefs, customs, values, traditions, judgments and intuitive “feeling” about whether something is “good” or “bad.” It is about judgment, not cooperation. If our ancestors felt that something was noxious, disgusting or rancid, they labeled it bad, then “immoral.” They did not like encountering smelly things. They thought dead carcasses were “disgusting.” They thought that human waste was “disgusting” and “smelly.” If their fellow man smelled bad, then he, too, was “disgusting” and “bad.” If a man had anal sex, that was “disgusting” and “bad” because they associated the anus with human waste—and that “smelled bad.” If a man betrayed his brother, the aggrieved party felt disgusted, then labeled the traitor “bad.” These original, visceral—and ultimately sensory—judgments come down to us as “modern morality.” Mr. Brooks is correct that they do not derive from pure reason; instead, they are intuitive, emotional responses to “disgusting” stimuli.

Morality is quintessentially organic. It develops over time and descends. There is nothing metaphysical about the inquiry. And that is significant: After all, Mr. Brooks argues that moral rules lead people to “the good” as “an end,” as if there were an absolute “good” to achieve in the first place. If anything, moral rules enshrine original, emotional judgments of powerful men in distant history. These men cared nothing for “absolute good.” They simply knew what they smelled and they did not like it. In this light, Mr. Brooks is profoundly confused. Morality is organic, not metaphysical. It is judgmental, not neutral. He is right that it derived from human emotion, but he is wrong that it proves that human beings are “good, “cooperative,” “empathetic” and “altruistic.” Quite the contrary, men historically have used morality much more often to dominate and tyrannize their fellow man, not to cooperate with him.

Mr. Brooks finds it reassuring that there are philosophers out there who think about morality in a way that “entails a warmer view of human nature.” In other words, he finds it comforting that morality serves “the good” and perpetuates “human cooperation,” as well as respect for “tradition, religion and loyalty” as positive moral values. He thinks these “discoveries” represent an “epochal change.” But what is so new about relating morality to human emotion and intuitive preference? In 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that the notion “good” derives not from some metaphysical conception of “useful behavior,” but rather from the individual judgments of “the noble, the privileged, the higher and the sophisticated, who considered their activity and themselves as ‘first-rate,’ in contrast to all low, mean, common and rabble-like people.” On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, § 2 (my translation). Over 120 years ago, Nietzsche knew that morality was about judgment, inequality, condescension and power, not cooperation. This “power” to create moral rules involved the power to designate whether conduct was “good” or “bad:” “The right of the master to give names extends so far that we can even understand that the origin of language itself represents an expression of power by the ruling classes: they tell us ‘this is this, and this is that (emphasis added).’” Id. In short, we have known for a long time that our “powerful ancient masters” had the authority to enshrine their emotional judgments as “moral rules.” And they weren’t trying to “warmly” cooperate with the “masses,” either.

In truth, I could not help laughing when I read Mr. Brooks’ argument that morality shows human beings “at their best.” In my experience, morality shows human beings at their worst. When I read a discussion about morality that does not involve disgust, judgment, hatred and resentment, I know something is wrong. After all, morality is about power. When powerful people judge, they necessarily must focus that judgment on someone who has “deviated from the moral standard.” Morality requires judgment to maintain its authority. After all, how could we praise “good” behavior if we did not also condemn “bad” behavior? Mr. Brooks believes that it is “moral” to be “loyal” because human beings are “successful cooperators” who found loyalty helpful in reaching their common goals. Yet this does not prove that human beings are good. Rather, it proves that our ancient forbears praised people who helped them hunt or build a house, while they condemned and hated people who said they would help, but did not. They felt disgust and hatred toward the people who broke their promises. They transformed that disgust into a judgment: “Disloyal people are bad; loyal people are good. Loyal people make me feel good. Disloyal people make me feel bad. Therefore, I like loyal people and I hate disloyal people.” It is pathetically simple. It is not nuanced. Yet this supposedly reveals human beings as “naturally good” creatures? No—it reveals human beings as self-interested, judgmental and simple-minded creatures: They like things they find “good” and they “hate” things they find “disgusting” and “bad.” This shows inherent goodness? I think not. It shows only that human beings have intuitive preferences and make judgments according to those preferences.

“Thing smell good. Me like. Thing smell bad. Me hate.” Tell me again: What is so earth-shattering about this?

In moral questions, there is no “inherent good.” There is only power and judgment. True, there are many behaviors that most of us would consider both “good” and “moral.” For example, we all hate lying, stealing, murdering, thieving, robbing and violence. Morality labels these behaviors “immoral” and “bad.” We agree with morality in these cases. Yet we often fail to understand that when we apply moral rules, we are applying an ancient code. Moral judgments come down to us over many generations and we absorb them fully into our subconscious. But this is not because morality arose through the efforts of well-intentioned men. Rather, morality arose because powerful men pronounced their emotional judgments about behavior long ago, and those judgments prevailed. Now we live with their pronouncements. They labeled stealing, murdering and robbing “disgusting.” Their view triumphed. Now their judgments rule us.

But what about behavior that harms no one? Mr. Brooks completely fails to visit this “darker side” of moral history. After all, morality is about power and judgment. We face no problem when the powerful label obviously harmful activity “bad” and “immoral.” Similarly, we have no problem when we judge people who deviate from these “good” standards. But what happens when powerful men—or even majorities—find certain behavior “disgusting” that is not clearly harmful? Throughout history, powerful men have found certain innocuous behavior “disgusting” and severely judged it. It is one thing to deem murder “disgusting,” but quite another to deem interracial marriage “disgusting.” What about consensual sodomy? Is that “disgusting?” Is it “immoral?” If we say yes, does that mean we “show ourselves to be successful cooperators” and “altruists?” When human beings formulate moral rules, they focus their social energy on an enemy. They judge that enemy with ruthless spite. They say the enemy is “disgusting,” “wicked,” “evil,” “deviant,” “abhorrent,” “abominable,” “sinful,” “wretched” and “wrong.” As recently as the 18th Century, English common law courts hanged men for engaging in consensual sex with one another for the “heinous and detestable sin of sodomy.” See, e.g., This is what morality can lead to. Contrary to Mr. Brooks’ assertion, this does not show humans “at their best,” nor does it reveal a “warmer, cooperative side” to human nature. Quite the contrary, morality can show human beings at their most unjust, most intolerant and most peremptory. And why? Because some people consider a particular behavior “disgusting,” even if it harms no one. They just think it “smells bad.” In my view, there is nothing “cooperative,” “warm” or “altruistic” about executing “immoral” people.

Morality vexes me because it is firmly engrained in culture. It is exceedingly difficult to trace its origins. Every society has its own moral code, just as every person has his own tastes. It makes sense to analogize morality with taste because moral rules reflect subjective judgments, just as taste does. Yet this also makes it hard to understand. Morality, after all, looks like law. It lays down external rules. It projects authority. It judges and punishes. The problem is divining its origins. Law begins with an acknowledged sovereign, but morality begins in primeval, emotional history. Mr. Brooks correctly points out that morality finds its roots in individual emotional intuition, not theoretical abstraction. Thereafter, his analysis veers into strange territory, concluding in essence that human beings are naturally good, and that their moral rules reflect good, cooperative principles.

But Mr. Brooks is wrong on these points. For one, it makes no sense to assume that there is “absolute good” while arguing that men’s moral rules do not conform to “absolute good.” Second, Mr. Brooks does not recognize that moral rules only arise through power, and they only preserve their authority through judgment, hatred and resentment. Last, Mr. Brooks is startlingly incorrect to use morality as proof of human goodness, altruism and cooperation. If anything, our moral history reveals humans as intolerant, judgmental, cruel and divisive creatures. Mr. Brooks may debunk Socrates to begin his essay, but he praises Aristotle at the end.

Aristotle believed that human beings were cooperative creatures, like bees and fish. He believed that every human activity had a natural purpose, just as every animal activity appears to have a natural purpose. He assumed that men pursued a metaphysical “good.” Yet these are all theoretical abstractions. Mr. Brooks says that morality does not conform to theoretical abstraction, but in the end he assumes that men follow morality to reach metaphysical “good.” He would be better to recognize that morality has no “natural purpose,” and there is no “metaphysical good.” Rather, morality is nothing but power and judgment. Powerful men say what they like, what they hate, pass it down, and punish those who disagree. In this sense, moral rules reflect inequality and division, not cooperation and altruism. And they certainly do not reveal a “warmer side” to human nature. Instead, they show that human beings will always divide themselves from one another and judge one another according to “the right moral code.”

This is not an “epochal change.” This is the way it has always been.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

David Brooks threw some pap out there as a placeholder for an actual column, since Bob Herbert was out. Sadly, history teaches that had Bob Herbert written, there would still be no actual column. Having you smash David Brooks in this context is like arresting a prostitute with the 101st Airborne. :D