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September 14, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

David Brooks on Virtue Ethics and Morality

But the paradox is, when a lot of these people slip into the policy-making mode, that social awareness vanishes and they start talking like accountants. So in the course of my career, I have covered a series of failures. We sent economists in the Soviet Union with privatization plans when it broke up, and what they really lacked was social trust. We invaded Iraq with a military oblivious to the cultural and psychological realities. We had a financial regulatory regime based on the assumptions that traders were rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid. For 30 years, I’ve been covering school reform and we’ve basically reorganized the bureaucratic boxes — charters, private schools, vouchers — but we’ve had disappointing results year after year. And the fact is, people learn from people they love. And if you’re not talking about the individual relationship between a teacher and a student, you’re not talking about that reality, but that reality is expunged from our policy-making process.

And so that’s led to a question for me: Why are the most socially-attuned people on earth completely dehumanized when they think about policy? And I came to the conclusion, this is a symptom of a larger problem. That, for centuries, we’ve inherited a view of human nature based on the notion that we’re divided selves, that reason is separated from the emotions and that society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. And it’s led to a view of human nature that we’re rational individuals who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. And it’s led to ways of seeing the world where people try to use the assumptions of physics to measure how human behavior is. And it’s produced a great amputation, a shallow view of human nature.

We’re really good at talking about material things, but we’re really bad at talking about emotions. We’re really good at talking about skills and safety and health, we’re really bad at talking about character. Alasdair MacIntyre, the famous philosopher, said that, “We have the concepts of the ancient morality of virtue, honor, goodness, but we no longer have a system by which to connect them.” And so this has led to a shallow path in politics, but also in a whole range of human endeavors.

In an earlier New York Times article he makes a convincing argument, “Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it 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.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

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.


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