Friday, July 23, 2010

David Brooks on The Moral Naturalists

In today's New York Times (July 23), David Brooks has an op-ed essay on "The Moral Naturalists," which comments on some of the researchers who explain morality as rooted in human evolutionary psychology. Despite the brevity of the essay, he makes some good points, especially in the opening and closing paragraphs.

At the beginning, he writes:

"Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Most people think it is a gift of God, who revealed His laws and elevates us with His love. A smaller number think that we figure the rules out for outselves, using our capacity to reason and choosing a philosophical system to live by.

"Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have emerged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don't rely upon revelation or metaphysics: you observe people as they live."

I agree with the moral naturalists here in their empirical approach to morality--studying morality as it is manifested in how human beings live, rather than making a transcendent appeal to revelation or metaphysics.

At the end of his essay, Brooks writes:

"For people wary of abstract theorizing, it's nice to see people investigating morality in ways that are concrete and empirical. But their approach does have certain implicit tendencies.

"They emphasize group-cohesion over individual dissent. They emphasize the cooperative virtues, like empathy, over the competitive virtues, like the thirst for recognition and superiority. At this conference, they barely mentioned the yearning for transcendence and the sacred, which plays such a major role in every human society.

"Their implied description of the moral life is gentle, fair and grounded. But it is all lower case. So far, at least, it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great."

By contrast, I do recognize the competitive virtues by acknowledging the natural desires for social status, political rule, and courage in war. I also recognize the tragic conflicts that arise from diverse ranking of the natural desires that distinguish one moral tradition from another and one individual from another. And I recognize the yearning for the transcendent as an expression of the natural desire for religious understanding.

Brooks highlights the work of Jonthan Haidt, Marc Hauser, and Paul Bloom. Some of my posts on these three can be found here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

My most recent work(pg. 3) has dealt with bridging the work of these people to Hayek's spontaneous order theory, which I think answers some of Brook's concerns. At least, I'll try to answer them more clearly in my paper for an upcoming edition of Advances in Austrian Economics, which is what I'm working on now.