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.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

7 thoughts

  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.

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