Monday, March 14, 2011

The Rationalist Strikes Back: Thomas Nagel on David Brooks' Moral Biology

Today, we all live in the world of Charles Darwin.

If we're looking for some intellectually credible explanation for our human place in the universe, there is today no plausible alternative to Darwinian evolutionary science. Because of Darwin, we now know what we are and where we came from. We are those remarkably smart, social primates with a unique suite of natural desires and capacities--including language, morality, and self-awareness--that has arisen through natural and cultural evolution.

The pervasive influence of this grand Darwinian story is now being extended beyond the natural sciences into the social sciences and humanities. We can see that this spring in the public debate surrounding two new books that are offering powerful arguments for a Darwinian paradigm for the social sciences. Next month, we'll see Frank Fukuyama's new book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, which is the first volume in what some people are calling Fukuyama's magnum opus. Having seen some of Fukuyama's lecture notes for some of the material going into this book, I foresee that this will become one of the leading statements of Darwinian political science.

The other book has just been published--David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Brooks surveys the research in evolutionary psychology as supporting an Aristotelian conception of human nature and human happiness. To illustrate his points, Brooks tells the story of one composite American couple--Harold and Erica. As Brooks indicates, he intends to employ the technique of Rousseau's Emile, in using a fictional narrative to illustrate his account of human nature.

Since I am now reading Brooks' book, I was interested in the review of the book by Thomas Nagel in the New York Times Book Review.

Nagel is a prominent philosopher at New York University. In 1978, he wrote one of the first responses to E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology coming from a philosopher. Like most philosophers at the time, Nagel showed the reaction of a Platonic transcendentalist in denigrating Wilson's biological account of morality. Nagel rejected sociobiological ethics because it failed to see that ethics is "an autonomous theoretical subject" like mathematics that belongs to a transcendent realm of pure logic. He argued that ethics exists at two levels--the behavioral and the theoretical. And while he acknowledged that biology could illuminate the behavioral level of ethics--the patterns of ethical action as motivated by moral emotions--he dismissed biology as irrelevant to the theoretical level of ethics as concerned with rational standards of moral justification and criticism. Insofar as morality is a matter of normative reasoning, it has nothing to do with any empirical science of human behavior.

With my memory of this essay, I was not surprised to see Nagel criticizing Brooks's book. Here we see the fundamental debate that has been the subject of many of my posts--the conflict between a Platonic or Kantian transcendentalism and an Aristotelian or Humean empiricism. Brooks shows how a Darwinian moral psychology confirms the Aristotelian and Humean tradition of empirical ethics, which will provoke the opposition of Platonic and Kantian transcendentalists like Nagel.

Nagel suggests at least four criticisms of Brooks's book. First, Nagel scorns Brooks's story of Harold and Erica as lacking any psychological depth that would engage our interest in them as vivid characters: "they do not come to life; they and their supporting cast are mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations."

I agree that Brooks's story lacks the narrative power of a good novel. But, at least, the story does succeed in the same way that Rousseau's Emile succeeds in providing concrete illustrations of some generalizations about human life.

Brooks's main argument is that the human mind works at two levels--the conscious and the unconscious--and that the unconscious mind is more important in shaping our lives. Nagel's second criticism is his complaint that Brooks does not clearly separate these two realms, because much of what Brooks identifies as unconscious--such as emotions, desires, character traits, and perceptions--could also be seen as parts of conscious experience. But then Nagel essentially concedes Brooks's point in admitting that to a large degree these conscious experiences are not fully under direct conscious control.

Nagel's third criticism is that Brooks is too credulous in accepting some "idiotic" claims by cognitive scientists--"for example, that since people need only 4,000 words for 98 percent of conversations, the reason they have vocabularies of 60,000 words is to impress and sort out potential mates." But, then, Nagel admits that much of the research reported by Brooks is persuasive and not easily dismissed.

Nagel's fourth criticism expresses the fundamental dispute. Although Brooks does say that reason is important for human moral judgment, his argument that emotion and other unconscious motivations and perceptions drive moral experience tends to deny the supremacy of reason in ruling over the passions, which thus rejects the philosophical rationalism that Nagel and other moral philosophers take for granted. Brooks says that conscious reasoning gives us some control over our moral choices because "we can choose the narrative we tell about our lives." So, for example, when Erika commits adultery, she immediately feels a deeply painful regret for what she has done. And contrary to what Nagel says about the story of Harold and Erica being "without interest," I find Brooks's description of how Erika is seduced by "Mr. Make-Believe" and is then thrown into agonizing remorse to be a moving narrative that elicits our sympathetic understanding. This story is a good illustration of what Darwin says about the experience of regret in shaping our moral deliberation. Erika responds to her moral crisis by telling herself a "story of drift and redemption"--a story of a woman who drifted away from her moral anchors until she found her way back to her moral commitments to a husband that she truly loved.

"Amid the tangled jostle of unconscious forces," Brooks observes, "the intuitionist still leaves room for reason and reflection," because "we can choose the narrative we tell about our lives." Nagel objects that this doesn't provide us any rational standards for choosing one narrative over another. He writes:

Experiments show that human beings feel greater sympathy for those who resemble them--racially, for example--than for those who do not. How do we know that it would be better to counter the effects of this bias rather than to respect it as a legitimate form of loyalty? The most plausible ground is the conscious and rational one that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone's suffering, so these differential feelings, however natural, are a poor guide to how we should treat people. But reason is not Brooks's thing: he prefers to quote a little Sunday school hymn about how Jesus loves the little children, "Be they yellow, black or white/they are precious in his sight." This is an easy case, but harder ones also demand more reflection than he has time for.

But then Nagel never explains exactly how purely rational principles resolve moral conflicts. (I recognize, of course, that a short book review doesn't allow for much elaboration.) He doesn't respond to some of the evidence surveyed by Brooks that shows how apparently rational human beings--psychopaths, for example--can become moral monsters because they lack the moral emotions that incline them to care for other human beings.

Moreover, Nagel doesn't explain why so many of the Kantian moral philosophers in Nazi Germany joined the Nazi Party. They surely had a very good intellectual understanding of the rational principle "that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone's suffering." But, apparently, their philosophical rationalism could not overcome the appeal of Nazi morality.

I will be writing some future posts on Brooks's book.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

The New Yorker has published an excerpt from Brooks's book.

There is a web video of a "TED Talk" by Brooks on why reason cannot be separated from emotion.


Anonymous said...

With all due sympathy for your critical remarks on Nagel, I'm a bit troubled by your easy assimilation of Plato and Kant and Aristotle to Hume. I've not read Brooks' book, but the articles and interviews I've read have led me to some worries that it is too Humean. To my mind, there is a very important difference between Aristotle and Hume, one that you have sometimes overlooked. The difference is in their answer to the question of what makes something good. Hume thinks that what makes something good is, in the last analysis, just that we desire it. We don't and can't desire things for reasons, unless of course the reason is supplied by some further end that we just desire for no reason at all. Hume's ethics is thus thoroughly subjectivist.

Aristotle rejects this view, as you must realize. For Aristotle, what makes something good is that it constitutes or is appropriately related to the integral exercise of our essential capacities as rational animals. The complete and harmonious exercise of these capacities is our natural end. Though anything we desire for its own sake ordinarily bears some sort of relation to these ends, our desires can be warped or distorted by natural deficiencies or by poor habituation, and in any event the desire that we have for these ends is not what makes them good. The best that Hume can do is to say that some desires are unusual or impossible to realize coherently; it is just not open to him, given his analysis of desire and practical reason, to talk about a desire being intrinsically mistaken (i.e., mistaken just by virtue of what it is for, not by virtue of how it relates to our other desires).

This difference has pretty serious implications. For one thing, Humean subjectivism is, in effect, nihilism for people who are happy to be unreflective and pretty conventional. But it is no less nihilistic than Nietzsche. I would have expected you, as someone who has written eloquently about the threat of nihilism, to appreciate the difference between a view like Aristotle's that sees the good as a matter of actualizing our essential capacities as rational animals, and a view like Hume's which tells us that the objects of our desires have no value beyond what our desires give them. If there is no standard for our desires, then why should it really matter what we desire?

My worry about Brooks is that he leans too far in this Humean direction. That is, no doubt, part of Nagel's worry, too. But Nagel, you're right, is too Kantian. Kantians, of course, can end up sounding a whole lot like Aristotelians once they're willing to translate their talk about personhood and rational agency into talk about our nature as rational animals (see Korsgaard's more recent work, in which she defends an explicitly teleological account of the human good drawing on Plato and Aristotle and still thinks that she's being faithful to Kant; or consider Rawls' recourse to the importance for rational agents of 'expressing their rational nature' through respect for other rational agents). They often won't make that translation, of course, and insist that facts and 'values' are utterly distinct. That mistake, however, is motivated in part by a desire to avoid the problems with views like Hume's, which leave us unable to evaluate our desires except relative to other desires. To that extent, the Kantian critique is right on.

Aristotle offers us a tremendous resource in part because his view allows us to reject the false dichotomy between Humean subjectivism and Kantian apriorism. I'm disappointed that you seem to want to keep that dichotomy alive.

For a very nice account of the differences between Aristotle, Hume, and Kant, see Fred Miller's "Aristotelian Autonomy."

Larry Arnhart said...

In DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, I argue that Hume's idea of the moral sense as rooted in natural human desires belongs to the tradition of ethical naturalism begun by Aristotle. Hume appeals to moral sentiments that manifest a universal human nature, and therefore he is not a subjectivist or nihilist.

I have elaborated these points in many of my posts on this blog.

Empedocles said...

So how do you reconcile Hume's view that reason is and ought to be slave to the passions, and that passions are not subject to rational criticism, with his view of human sympathy? How can he rationally say that we ought to have a passion for the feelings of other humans? How could he rationally criticize someone who just happens to lack that sympathy?

Larry Arnhart said...

In the striving for a good human life, reason and desire are mutually dependent. Without reason, we could not intelligently manage our desires for their full satisfaction over a whole life. Without desire, our reason would lack any power to move us to think or act rationally. Even the most abstract activities of reason depend on desires such as curiosity or wonder to motivate and guide our thoughts.

"Thought by itself moves nothing," Aristotle observed, because any human action that is deliberately chosen requires a union of reason and desire. A deliberate choice manifests either "desiring reason" or "reasoning desire."

Sometimes desires are consciously apprehended, but not always. Like other animals, human beings often do not have full conscious awareness of the desires that move them. But to the extent to which they are conscious of their desires, human beings make prudent judgments about their conduct.

This view of ethics as arising from reason and desire--ethics as rooted in natural human desires, as requiring habits of right desire, and as guided by prudential reasoning in judging the contingencies of action--was originally developed by Aristotle in his ethical, rhetorical, and biological writings. (Aristotle's RHETORIC is particularly important for understanding the psychology of the moral emotions.)

Other philosophers in the tradition of ethical naturalism, such as Hume and Smith, have defended a similar understanding. Just as Aristotle declared that "thought by itself moves nothing," Hume declared that "reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will."

Although Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin believed that most human beings were inclined by nature to develop a moral sense, they recognized that some human beings were morally depraved in that they found pleasure in brutal acts taht would not be naturally pleasurable to normal people.

Aristotle thought that such depravity could arise from three possible causes--from injury, from habituation, or from innate temperament. A physical injury could cause mental disorder. Bad habituation, as in those abused from childhood, could cause morbid behavior. Or an inborn abnormality of temperament could cause brutal dispositions. Darwin suggested similar causes when he spoke of those who lacked the social emotions that support the moral sense. Such a person would be an "unnatural monster" and "essentially a bad man," for whom "the sole restraining motive left is the fear of punishment." Hume would identify such a person as a "clever knave."

Today, we call people like this psychopaths. Those who are psychopathic have no moral sense. This is not caused by any lack of rationality, because psychopaths are often remarkably intelligent people. This is caused by a deficit in their moral emotions--probably tied to some abnormality in their brains--so that they cannot feel love, guilt, shame, or sympathy for others.

Since psychopaths lack the moral emotions that make moral experience possible, it is impossible to persuade them that they are mistaken. Our only appeal with such people is force and fear. In the most extreme cases, we lock them up or execute them.

Brooks takes up the research on psychopathy in one passage of his book. I have a chapter on psychopathy in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT.

Troy Camplin said...

Reason comes after the fact. We have the emotional/moral response to a situation. Then we rationalize it. Then we think and possible talk through the situation and use reason to help inform future behavior (under ideal conditions). Properly internalized, it then affects the next emotional response. Repeat.

Some of us in the humanities are doing Darwinian work as well:

Empedocles said...

I agree with what you say, but add that Hume has an especially tough time with rational psychopaths because they do follow their passions/desires, and Hume claims that desires can not be rationally criticized. Plus, he eschews all teleology so he can't criticize the psychopath for having abnormal desires; there are no such things for Hume.