April 20, 2009

David Brooks knows Morality

A David Brooks column in the New York Times, today, "The End of Philosophy," is spot on, in my estimation, in explaining morality.

Here, a central snip of some of the text:
Moral judgments are like [this: You just know.] They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain.

... What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. 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.
Hooray, David Brooks. And hooray Born to be Good, a book that Brooks does not cite, but which gets into precisely these issues. This blog has three posts about Dasher Kiltner's book: (1), (2) and (3).

Brooks does cite, and quote, Jonathan Haidt, a academician who, similar to Kiltner, also embraces "positive" evolution ideas. [My meat- and virtual-space friend Nagarjuna is a big fan of Haidt and is currently reading his book The Happiness Hypothosis.] Here is Brooks's citation of Haidt
:... reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”
[Haidt's words above come from 2001, from a book or paper I cannot fully ID. The 2003 book Handbook of affective sciences uses a paper Haidt wrote where Haidt quotes himself, with the ellipsis that Brooks uses, citing Haidt 2001 & Wilson 1993. Hmmm.]

Brooks ends his column with these fine words:
The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. ... it should ... 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.
I love that last half sentence: "...most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself."

9 comments:

Kyle R Lovett said...

Hey, thanks for that Book suggestion, Born to be Good. I picked it up and look forward to reading it. It is getting a lot of good reviews.

Tom said...

Great, Kyle. I hope you like Born to be Good.

Anonymous said...

Tom, can you please pop in to assure me that the post that came in through my RSS today (4/20, entitled "Plan B") is *not* true? There are people out here who read you, love you and your writings, and worry about you.

With a bow...

Mumon said...

What Anonymous said.

Besides, if the worst you think about what's in your world is true, me, I'd stay alive and strive to live well just out wanting to know that nobody's "won" anything. Or call it healthy resentment.

And one other reason: it's sort of the ultimate in being a litterbug; I'm not kidding.

A good friend's husband killed himself a few months ago, and what shocked me was the uncouth, uncaring mess the guy left behind.

Please don't be remembered that way.

Tom said...

We are all uncouth piles of flesh and bone and blood, Mumon. It would be ok if I were remembered that way. Or as a shit-wiping stick.

Very sorry, Anon, Mumon, others. All is well. Very very sorry. Plan B should not have been published.

Anonymous said...

i'm so happy to hear that you're ok.

Mumon said...

Tom, with all due respect, it might be OK for you if you were remembered that way, but trust me, those who are left to clean up what's left won't think it's OK.

Anyway, glad you're still among the iving.

Tom said...

Thanks Anon.

Mumon: You'll be happy to know that my method of choice is bridge jumping. And considering the jumpsite I have in mind [see Suicide Run], there's no mess.

Thoughtful, I am.

Tom said...

I was just looking at that blogpost in this blog from (NOT co-incidentally) a year ago, and its comments.

Truly, I don't want y'all to think of me as deeply unhappy. I am mostly pretty happy. But between my sister stealing everything, the insane justice department in Sacramento, being stuck in the Big Muddy Muddy of nearly-vegetable-free Homeless World with jailtime being my only out, with a sentence there being deranged and cruel and unbelievable. THAT is not too cool. And I am stuck and no money and I stink a little most of the time.

And the one thing I am certain of is that one of the very best decisions in my life is to have broken my sister's windows. It is the one absolutely right thing I ever did. If I hadn't broken her windows, she'd have gotten away scottfree, the justice department in Sacramento being so contemptable. As it was, she still gets away scottfree but she does so after having to commit perjury [that she'll never be prosecuted for].