Friday, April 13, 2012

Murray on Brooks: Perfect Happiness and Other Ironies

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

"However little the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

--Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

"This is the happiest story you've ever read.  It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives.  They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world."

--David Brooks, The Social Animal

When readers of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice read the first two sentences of the book, they smile, and they know that this is going to be a novel of comic irony, turning on the problems of the Bennet household in finding husbands for five marriageable daughters.

Apparently, many of the readers of David Brooks' The Social Animal don't recognize a similar irony in its opening paragraph.  In fact, Charles Murray has written a review of the book for The Claremont Review of Books that criticizes Brooks because his story of Harold and Erica is not really "the happiest story you've ever read."  "To my mind," Murray complains, "they led impoverished lives."

In my course this semester on "Politics and the Life Sciences," we are now reading Brooks' book, and I have asked the students to read Murray's review.  I have been surprised that most of them agree with Murray's criticisms, and they don't notice that Murray contradicts himself at the end of his review, when he guesses that Brooks' opening sentence is ironical, and thus Brooks wants his readers to see that the story of Harold and Erica is not really "the happiest story."  Anyone who reads the book carefully will see the mistakes that Harold and Erica make in their pursuit of happiness, mistakes that illuminate the wide range of natural human desires that would have to be satisfied for perfect happiness.

Murray begins his review by comparing Brooks' book to other books that survey scientific research in a way that makes it comprehensible to a general audience of readers, and he mentions The Bell Curve (1994), the famous (and controversial) book on the science of IQ coauthored by Murray and Richard Herrnstein.  Murray doesn't mention that although Brooks talks extensively about IQ research, he never cites Murray's book.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a scholarly writer who fails to see his name in the index of a new book must have a need to write a negative book review.

As you might expect, Murray doesn't like what Brooks says about IQ.
Brooks is too uncritical about the evidence for malleability of I.Q. and understates the importance of differences in I.Q. at the upper levels.  He uses an escape word to downplay the role of I.Q. in Harold and Erica's success, saying they "have no extraordinary physical or mental gifts."  It depends on how you define "extraordinary."  Harold's I.Q. had to have been in the top few centiles of the distribution, and Erica's in the top decile, given the specific cognitive demands of their accomplishments.  But his summaries of the relationships of I.Q. to most outcomes in life are reasonable given his topic is the effects of cognitive ability on individuals (small), not on social trends (large, but not his topic).
Notice that at the end of this paragraph, Murray concedes that Brooks' arguments for downplaying the importance of IQ for individual success are generally correct. 

Murray's claim about Brooks being "too uncritical about the the evidence for malleability of I.Q." is apparently a reference to Brooks' emphasis on the "Flynn effect"--the studies of James Flynn on how I.Q. scores in the developed world have risen steadily over the past 60 years, which suggests that a cognitively challenging environment has stimulated increasing cognitive ability.  Murray doesn't explain why this isn't evidence for the malleability of IQ in response to the cultural environment.

Moreover, Murray doesn't tell his readers that Brooks agrees that Erica and Harold had to have high IQ to accomplish what they did.  They probably had to cross the threshold of a 120 IQ to do what they did.  Forrest Gump (with an IQ of 76) could not have lived the sort of life that Harold and Erica lived.  But Brooks' point is that over the threshold of 120 IQ, there is little correlation between more intelligence and more achievement.  High IQ is necessary but not sufficient to explain high achievement. 

What really counts is not so much mental force as mental character, which depends on moral character, on moral virtues like self-control and intellectual virtues like practical wisdom (163-66).  That's why Brooks concludes that Aristotle was right in the Nicomachean Ethics about the importance of proper moral habituation for happiness.   In fact, one might well conclude that Brooks shows how modern science confirms almost everything in Aristotle's Ethics (128, 323).

Murray criticizes Brooks for portraying a view of happiness in life attained through professional careers and fame, which neglects three other sources of deep satisfaction--family, community, and faith.  But in quoting passages from the book, Murray does not direct the readers attention to the many passages where Brooks recognizes the defects in the life of Harold and Erica.

Harold wanted to have children.  When he tried to talk about this with Erica, she reacted with anger.  Brooks explains: "It was one of the most important subjects of their lives.  It had been their most important disagreement, a cancer at the center of their relationship.  And they never spoke about it again." (268)  Clearly, Brooks depicts this as a serious mistake.

Murray criticizes Brooks for not recognizing the importance of deep and enduring friendships.  And yet Brooks repeatedly speaks about the need for friendship (197, 210-11, 313-14), and he gives us a vivid sketch of Harold's life with his friends when he was between twenty-two and thirty.  "Being part of the Group was an end in itself.  More time with his friends meant more of a feeling of being alive, and there was no higher purpose involved" (193-94).  Murray complains that these friendships are not continued later in life, but Brooks indicates that both Harold and Erica suffered from breaking off such friendships (342-43).

Murray notes that Harold and Erica were not always happy in their marriage, because their devotion to their separate careers drove them apart.  He quotes the remark that "as the years went by, they fell out of the habit of really talking, or even looking each other in the eye" (265).  But Murray doesn't acknowledge that Brooks points to this as a serious mistake.  "They both became profoundly sad. . . . For Harold, as for Erica, the profoundest source of satisfaction was work, and it wasn't enough.  Harold wasn't going to commit suicide, but if someone told him he had a fatal disease, he felt he could face the prospect with equanimity" (266).

Erica's brief adulterous tryst comes during this emotional crisis in her marriage.  Her immediate response is to feel a deep pain from shame and remorse, which Brooks uses to illustrate the basis of morality in the moral sentiments of evolved human nature.  He sees her moral failing as coming from her drifting away from what she should have known was most important for her.  "Erica had become a shallower person, disconnected from the potential of her own nature" (293).

Erica rediscovers her love for Harold, and part of that is realizing that Harold has an intellectual depth that she lacks.  "He would never be an earthshaking titan like Mr. Make-Believe.  But he was humble and good and curious.  And with his disparate curiosities and research frenzies, he was engaged in the most important search, the search to find meaning in life.  People like that are worth staying close to" (293).

Once Harold and Erica retire, Erica joins him in his search for meaning, which becomes the theme of the last two chapters.  Over the last eight years of their life, they travel around the world, leading tours.  Harold prepares for each tour by doing intense historical studies, so that this touring was "like a travelling course in human civilization" (359).  For Erica, these trips were joyful exercises in which she could "experience intense bursts of learning" (360).  For Harold, the trips were a continuation of his life-long quest for understanding. 

By the end of their story, they are living in Aspen, and Harold's ageing body forces him to become sedentary.  As he looks over the natural scenes around him, he thinks back over his life in search of meaning, and Brooks identifies this as his "contemplative life" (363-68).

In this and in other ways, the structure of Brooks' book reflects the structure of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which ends with the claim that the philosophic life is the highest life--the happiest life--for human beings.

And yet Brooks suggests that human happiness or flourishing requires a wide range of goods--not only the good of the contemplative life, but also the goods of social life secured by the moral virtues.

Moreover, despite Murray's criticism of Brooks for ignoring the importance of faith, Brooks indicates that Harold's philosophic search for meaning points to questions of transcendence.  (It should be noted that although Murray has said that belief in "transcendental goods" is necessary to motivate people to great achievement, Murray himself is not a believer, he doubts that moral norms have any support in nature, and he has said that if modern science is correct, "then all of the anomie and the alienation and the nihilism and the rest of it make a lot of sense.") 

Here are a few excerpts from the last section of Brooks's book--"The Final Day."

Harold "supposed that this essence [his soul] was manifested in neurons and synapses.  He had been born with certain connections, and since the brain is the record of the feelings of a life, he had slowly accreted new neural connections in his head.  And yet Harold couldn't help but think how enchanted it all was.  The connections had been formed by emotion.  the brain was physical meat, but out of the billions of energy pulses emerged spirit and soul.  There must be some supreme creative energy, he thought, that can take love and turn it into synapses and then take a population of synapses and turn it into love.  The hand of God must be there" (372).

"Had he transcended this earthly realm?  No.  He always had a sense there was something beyond life as science understands it.  he had always somehow believed in a God who existed beyond time and space.  But he had never fallen in with religion.  He had lived a worldly life and, regretfully, had never tasted Divine transcendence.

"Had he loved?  Yes.  The one constant in his adult life had been his admiration and love for the good woman who was his wife.  He knew that she did not reciprocate his love with the same strength and devotion. . . ." (374).

Harold's conscious mind fades into the unconsciousness of death.  "It would be interesting to know if this meant he had also entered a kingdom of heaven, God's kingdom.  But that was not communicated back to Erica.  His heart continued to beat for a few minutes, and his lungs filled and emptied with air and electrochemical impulses still surged through his brain.  He made some gestures and twitches, which the doctors would call involuntary but which in this case were more deeply felt than any other gestures could be.  And one of them was a long squeeze of the hand, which Erica took to mean good-bye.

"What had been there at the start was there at the end, the tangle of sensations, perceptions, drives, and needs that we call, antiseptically, the unconscious.  This tangle was not the lower part of Harold.  It was not some secondary feature to be surpassed.  It was the core of him--hard to see, impossible to understand--but supreme.  Harold had achieved an important thing in life.  He had constructed a viewpoint.  Other people see life primarily as a chess match played by reasoning machines.  Harold saw life as a neverending interpenetration of souls." (376)

In the spring of 2011, I wrote a series of posts on Brooks' book.  The first one can be found here.



Tony Bartl said...

"We have invented happiness" . . .

Anonymous said...

Where did you get the information on Murray being a nonbeliever and recognizing science's nihilistic conclusions?

Larry Arnhart said...

In an interview of Murray in Reason magazine, which I quote from in Darwinian Conservatism.

Anonymous said...

Found it. Thanks!