NYT, WTF? (In defense of Socrates)

A recent column in the NYT about morality has me outraged.  In The End of Philisophy, Brooks distinguishes the ‘old’ view of morality originally championed by Socrates, and a ‘new’ view of morality put forth by contemporary psychologists, cognitive scientists and “even philosophers.”

According to Brooks, morality was originally viewed as “mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.”  The new view, which he proceeds to explain glorify for the remainder of the article, is that morality is more like aesthetics.  We know right from wrong in the same way that we know which food tastes good to us, and what landscapes we like. 

If this were purely an exploration of the new view, it would be one thing.  But while Brooks actively promotes the notion that this new view of morality is a better one, he also misrepresents the old one.

The problem with a deliberative approach to morality, according to Mike Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at UCSB quoted by Brooks, is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people.”  The assumptions this argument makes, and the outcomes it overlooks are glaring.  First, it assumes that moral behavior should be proactive (consider the contrasting Buddhist concept of non-action as key to an enlightened state), and that ‘helping other people’ is an example of moral behavior.  What it does not take into account is the atrocities that have been committed (and continue to be committed) by disciples of morality, often in the name of ‘trying to help other people’. I know I don’t have to, but I’ll name a few: crusades, colonialism, Iraq war.

But, I have an even bigger problem with his argument (several, really).  He ignores that aesthetics emerged from philosophy.  He disrespects the different intellectual traditions he cites (including Talmudic study, making this personal) by conflating their epistemologies. He locates emotional reactions either in some innate human nature or in the result of evolution, which is not only contradictory, but also begs the questions of “according to who” and “how did they arrive at this conclusion”.  I would go on, but I have to finish this post and get back to my thesis so I’ll make it quick.

Brooks links evolution with cooperation, and suggests that the “evolutionary approach to morality…emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.”  Indeed.  The wisdom of the crowds theory might work in measurable situations, such as predicting play-off results or the stock market.  But I question whether this is really the best approach to issues of morality.

Furthermore, Brooks argues that seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.  As Trish points out, however, “‘seeing’ is trained by discipline: punished when wrong and rewarded when right.”  And these punishments and rewards, as well as what is punished and rewarded, are established by that society, thus making individual emotional reactions very predictable according to the current, societal accepted view of what is moral.

His argument is essentially tautological: morality is performed based on interactions with society, which defines what morality is in the first place.  Socrates would have never come to such an asinine conclusion.

And this is exactly why I think principled decision-making, based on texts and deliberation, is important.  It is not that studying and deliberating texts makes us more “rational” (rationality does not always lead to morality since it can also lead to utilitarianism) or even that its a kind of a toolbox that helps us evaluate our actions pre-act (although, in moments of non-crisis, it can be that), but that it has the power to change our emotional responses by deconstructing their creation in the first place.  It also puts us in the company of those who have spent a lot of time deliberating the nature of right and wrong, rather than in the company of those relying on socio-historically programmed emotions.  And lastly, it makes morality not something that emerges from the promordial fluid of society, but rather something that is constructed through principled actions.

Margarita Rayzberg

After receiving her B.S. in international business from Northeastern University, Margarita worked at a start up management consulting firm specializing in innovation for the service sector. A growing interest in the role of technology in development brought her to CCT where she wrote her thesis on the sociotechnical conditions that made possible the establishment of a rural real estate market in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. She is currently working for a research group focusing on microfinance and scheming her future in academia.