Adam Smith, on the left, looks through Brooks, while Hegel, on the right, can only think, “Oy.”


Poor David Brooks.  You just never know when he is going to get in over his head, and neither does he.  One can only marvel at some of the “out of left” field claims and arguments that he has made, while continuing to present himself as the most reasonable man on the planet.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s hard to dislike the guy, with his schoolboy enthusiasms and his deferential comments about the brains (specifically, the high SAT scores) of the members of the new administration.  And you have to prefer him to Rush.

But sometimes in his desire to show off and create a splash he goes too far.  Yesterday, April 7, 2009, was just such a day.  Brooks entitled his column in the NY Times, “The End of Philosophy.”  If that wasn’t pretentious enough, he then proceeded to tell us how philosophers have spent 2,500 years barking up the wrong tree because scientists have now discovered connections between morality and emotion.  (As if this is not an old topic, even in Ethics 101.)

Well, I couldn’t resist a quick response, and it appears that neither could hundreds of others.  I am reproducing my comments here (unedited) because it seems that they were recommended by good number of readers, and well, you know, one can never pass up an opportunity to knock David’s books out of his hands, figuratively speaking, that is.  His article, The End of Philosophy, is a wonderful example of what happens when one goes into the water before one knows how to swim, believing that one doesn’t have to learn.  (Just act naturally.)  I recommend it to instructors of philosophy (and writing) as a useful classroom tool.  Don’t do as David does, or else….  I recommended it to everyone else as a rewarding screamer.



Oy. I think that we need to talk. I am afraid that you are practicing philosophy without a license, which is okay, up to a point. (First rule: do no harm.) What is striking is how consistent you have been over the years in basically holding to a view of morality that Adam Smith and his followers would fine congenial, especially on cooperation. And then presenting from time to time “new insights” that support this position. (The notion that sympathy is the foundation of our moral sensibilities is certainly a feature of this school.) The one place where this School would have let you down in the past (that is, before you discovered emotion) was your desire to believe that Reason (with a capital R) can be depended on for moral guidance. (More on this below.)

I hope that you will not be offended if I say, your piece needs a bit more work. It is not entirely consistent and cogent, for example, in the way that it leans on emotions and then suddenly takes a turn toward “responsibility” at the end, without any sort of explanation for how the latter relates to the former. (And how are we to understand the development of the responsibility?)

But it also contains some rather bizarre claims, for example,

“Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.”

Are you really claiming the babies make moral judgments? Is any sort of emotional response to be understood as a moral judgment? Is the fact that we can’t explain why we think something is wrong always a failure of reason or a failure to appreciate the ways in which habits and judgments get built up over time? (Not all failures in understanding are failures of reason. I am afraid that you suffer a bit from the jilted lover of reason syndrome. You were a believer and now Reason hasn’t lived up to its billing. So, we jump from Reason to Emotion.)

Much to be said here. But this is only a space for quick comments. I have a suggestion. You might want to take a look a classical American Pragmatism, for it tries to grapple with morality in terms of values without relying on a “traditional” notion of reason. (This may be especially interesting to you, since it can be argued that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, a topic I have written about, if I can engage in a bit of germane self-promotion.)

— Mitchell Aboulafia, NY

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