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David Brooks vs. Moral Individualism

September 15, 2011, 7:39 PM

So I promised you proof that David Brooks is better than he says:  He doesn't really submit himself to the authority of the latest studies in neuroscience, and he still takes his bearings from a combination of sociology and political philosophy.  My initial strategy was to follow the lead of Ben Storey and find that evidence in Brooks' The Social Animal. 

But it turns out to be easier to make that point by saying a couple of things about David's latest column.  (Rather than quoting from the column this time, I'm urging to take a couple minutes out and read it RIGHT NOW.)

The first thing to note is that Brooks said nothing about neuroscience or any other form of hard science—that is, in this case, scientific studies about our natural hardwiring. 

Instead, we see that classic combination of sociology and philosophy.  He begins with the latest sociological study on the moral opinions about young Americans, finding that they, more than ever, regard moral choice as a matter of individual preference and so not really moral at all.

Brooks also cites philosophic authorities—Allan Bloom and Alasdair MacIntyre—who are famous for their polemics against relativism or emotivism.  Young people today, MacIntyre claims, live after virtue or in a world where there's no longer any common understanding of what being good or excellent is, and the result is, Bloom adds, that they have flat souls or lack the experiences and longings and even words that allow them to be more than competent conformists.   Can we say that this sort of analysis and worry isn't found among the neuorscientists and evolutionary psychologists?

We have to add that Bloom's big authority on what Americans are like is Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which might be called a masterful synthesis of sociology and philosophy.  It's a book that was written in the 1830s, but its analysis, as Brooks surely knows, is more true now than when it was written.  What the sociologists discovered Tocqueville predicted they would have discovered in a really democratic, libertarian time such as ours.

And Brooks' analysis is basically the same as Tocqueville's, whom we might say is his silent authority.  According to Tocqueville (and Brooks), American kids have become too anti-authoritarian.  In Tocqueville's words, they have become Cartesians without ever having read a word of Descartes.  The Cartesian method is doubt, and doubt is also the democratic method.  The American democrats systematically, as the bumper sticker says, "question authority."  They refuse to be governed by the words of other persons, because then they would unfreely and undemocratically be ruled by others.  That's why American Cartesians never actually read a word of Descartes—they won't submit to the philospher's authority or that of any person who would recommend his great works.  (That last observation, almost all by itself, explains why American education is so one-dimensionally technical and otherwise screwed up today.) 

The result is that the individual becomes locked up in himself—in his puny mind and his contracted heart.  He (or she, obviously) becomes anxious and disoriented, and then passively impotent.  The good democratic news is that nobody is better than me.  The corresponding bad news is that I'm not better than anyone else.  Another piece of bad news is that no solitary individual has the intellectual or emotional resources to create himself out of nothing.  Not even God himself has to do that.

So the seemingly intelectually liberated or morally self-determining individual ends up, by rejecting personal authority, submitting to the impersonal forces that surround him.  Democrats or American "Cartesians," Tocqueville, observes, tend to be governed by "fashion" or impersonal public opinion—opinion that comes from no one in particular.  If we all submit equally to some impersonal force, then no offense has been committed against democracy.  But the offense against personal liberty and genuine moral responsibility, Tocqueville shows, is profound and actually unprecedented.

That's the explanation of a sociological fact Brooks draws from the study:  Young people today lack what it takes to resist rampant consumerism.  (Tocqueville adds that democratic people also too readily defer to the impersonal authority of popularized science—the experts who rule us through the allegedly impersonal authority of their studies.)

So what's wrong with young people these days is that they don't what it takes to think freely—or as freely as people can think.  And they don't have the spirit of resistance required to act morally against the impersonal, degrading forces that surround them.  As Tocqueville says, individualism culminates in apathetic passivity, in an indifference to the moral choices of others based on the perception that moral judgment is repressive cruelty.  The individualist refuses to love or hate—believing that they're both more trouble than they're worth.  (Think Seinfeld or Larry David for laughably extreme cases here.)

Brooks' article, after all, is really a polemic against the slacker libertarianism of young people today.  There's no better or truer way to insult them than by saying your obsession with "negative freedom" is keeping you from thinking or acting freely.  Let me just mention the names Ron Paul and Ayn Rand here just to increase the the size of the group that will feel the insult.

It turns out, Brooks and Tocqueville add, that genuinely religously observant Americans have, at least sometimes, a point of view by which consumerism can be resisted, as well as tradition in which moral responsibility has weight and makes sense.  The same can be said, Tocqueville adds, for anyone with a sense of class.

Most of us, in our moral individualism, have no idea who we are or what we're supposed to do.  And, in the crucial respects, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology don't offer us the help we need.  All honor to David Brooks for reminding us of the indispensability of philosophy, religion, and personal authority. 


David Brooks vs. Moral Indi...

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