As Republicans go, David Brooks is one of the most reasonable and thoughtful writers we have. However, this week he dropped a real howler. The title is, The End of Philosophy, and it goes downhill from there. The gist goes thus:
Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that.
Brooks goes on to cite some basic evolutionary theory (as if he’d only just discovered it) to support his claim, and at some length concludes that it is all very well and good for us to be guided by instinct as we make moral decisions. My reaction to this argument, generally made by people much less intelligent then Brooks, can best be expressed by an interpretative dance. But my camera has been acting a little buggy, so let me try to put it into words.
I’m struck by the similarity to the analogy Franklin Einspruch made between food and art. Yes, you know whether something tastes good without having to think about it. But deciding whether a piece of art is good is quite a different process, informed however subtly by whatever art education and exposure to other work one has had. It may seem instinctual, but that instinct is honed by a lifetime of experience. (I recommend reading Franklin’s post and the 114 comments that followed over three days. My own response is mostly in comment #74.)
Finding a similarity between taste in food and a taste in art may be flawed, but to extend it to a taste in ethics is just absurd. Brooks cleverly gets us nodding along in the second paragraph by observing that those who study ethics are no more likely to behave ethically than the rest of us. Fine and dandy, but the academic study of the philosophy of ethics is something quite apart from the process we all go through, as we mature, of deciding how we shall govern ourselves in life.
I think that Julian Savulescu on the ‘Yuk’ Factor, a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (pardon the British spelling of the word “yuck”), directly refutes Brooks’ line of thinking. We have innate tendencies, and we have ethical principles adopted from our parents, and we have the capacity as intelligent humans to think through and decide whether we want to adopt these tendencies and principles. For example, as Savulescu points out, homophobia and racism may well be based on innate evolutionary instincts (for sure they are often learned from parents).
Yet many intelligent people are able to reason through to the conclusion that homophobia and racism are completely indefensible moral positions. Thus our rational, philosophical, thoughtful self trains our ethical instinct — trains the yuck factor, as it were. Brooks is correct that we make snap judgments as we go about our daily lives, but he is profoundly and disappointingly incorrect to think that moral reasoning and yes, even philosophizing, do not enter into the picture of developing our ethics.