Thursday, April 09, 2009

The "End of Philosophy"

David Brooks, in that inimitably pompous tone unique to pundits, declares the end of 3000 or so years of recorded philosophical reflection. It turns out that he's talking about ethics, not all of philosophy, presumably. Moral judgment is all a matter of intuition, he declares, so there's really not much need to be reasonable, deliberative, and all that when it comes to ethical / moral matters. Or, as he puts the latter, that thing that's dead: "Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it."

Thanks, man! That just saved me a hell of a lot of work trying to avoid doing just that.

Here's Brooks' subjectivist take on moral judgment:
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.
Brooks is saying something that's rather old and obvious (obvious, perhaps, unless we reflect upon the statement). If he had read the Greeks, he would have seen discussions about the role of moral intuition, even if the Greeks ultimately exalt the life of reason. And much of the history of moral philosophy has dealt with the role of intuition in moral judgment. New theories and data from the sciences and social sciences give that discussion more analytical oomph, as they have in the past, but they don't replace the role of reason or intelligence in moral thinking. It's silly to think otherwise.

Ethicists aren't trying to devise ways to to make our moral lives more complicated. They're asking what it means to have judgments such as the example Brooks provides as well as much more sophisticated and consequential moral judgments. They want to know whether we're moral automatons or morally autonomous. They want to understand how the various facets of morality fit together - moral psychology, meta-theory, snap judgments, reasoned ethical discussion, socially constructed moral norms, how we even figure out which are important moral questions and which aren't, etc. They want to know what we ought to do generally and in particular cases, and how best to figure that out. Sure, intuition plays a role in how we make the many moral judgments and decisions we do during each day. And we usually don't go into meta-theoretical debates or reflections upon the nature of reason at those moments to do so. But it has always been dangerous to reduce all of morality to intuitive judgments (or reduce it to reason alone, for that matter).

If, during the period of slavery it was acceptable based on one's moral intuitions to abuse slaves because they weren't fully human, how could we then judge otherwise? Maybe someone else had contrary intuitions. But how could they communicate that to the person with the pro-slavery intuitions? Brooks seems to think that there's some natural law or stroke of divine wisdom that pops up in moral intuition and that that's good enough for moral judgment. But if both sides on the slavery issue are citing natural law and the divine as the sources of their intuition, how do we adjudicate that? And how did we ever come to view slavery as immoral?

Brooks' end of philosophy statement - and conservatives in particular seem to love these pronouncements - is an attempt to reject a way of characterizing reason that's more like the ancient Greek conception than how most philosophers/ethicists characterize reason today (if they do so at all) - these things do evolve. Look, a large segment of contemporary philosophy is built around a rejection of the Platonist/Cartesian conception of rationality and this has been the case since at least Nietzsche and Peirce (in their very different ways).

It would be pretty pompous for a philosopher to announce the end of philosophy after nearly 3000 years, let alone a pundit who's making the judgment based on even more partial knowledge. It would have been more accurate for Brooks to declare the end of the priority accorded reason in ancient Greek and early modern philosophy. But then we already knew that.

UPDATE (9:44am):
Hilzoy also takes on Brooks. See also this cartoon summary (via Language Log).

UPDATE (12 April):
Steve G also has a nice discussion. He comes to this optimistic conclusion:
But I see worth in Brooks' column. It is an important development in the fracturing of the 20th century conservative movement. Yes, Brooks draws the wrong conclusion from what is interesting research (read Cass Sunstein's book Infotopia, if you want a good discussion about social psychological results and their effects on models of deliberation -- there are problems with his discussion, but not trivial ones), but he is a conservative who is just starting to wrestle with the complexities that those of us on the left have been thinking about for about a century and a half. How do you account for the effects of our individual wiring and the large scale, largely ossified structure of society and find ways to affect positive moral change? It is not only a hard question, in some sense it is THE hard question. It is the question that gives birth to modern ethics. The end of philosophy? No, my dear Brooksy, it is the birth of it. By trying to cut it short right after its birth, perhaps we ought to think of David Brooks as the philosophical mohel.


MT said...

I guess this is yet another of those situations in which I have to read the damn article in question to comment intelligently. But it seems like both you and he both must be swatting at straw men, and that the right perspective on this must be the one I've come to intuitively, or that I'll come to once I read the article. Meanwhile, I think Jesus or the Buddha, being blessed with the cooling off time that comes from living without Web access and having not been libeled so directly as helmut by the article in question, probably could have come up with a more sympathetic and more reasonable theory of where Brooks is coming from. He may be a bozo, but he's not an entirely hard-hearted or stupid bozo. I've seen him on PBS. Maybe there was something on American Idol last night that everybody besides helmut and me watched, to which Brooks was implicitly speaking? Maybe the zeitgeist doesn't remember the Neitzsche it read back in college. Can't we all just get along?

Steve Gimbel said...

Man, guess I'm out of a job. What can a former philosopher do? Well, I can write pseudo-intellectual nonsense masquerading as deep insight. Yes, I can work as a pundit with David Brooks...probably pays better...