The “End of Philosophy” and the Start of Humanism
April 9, 2009
New York Times columnist David Brooks proclaims the End of Philosophy , but we must be skeptical. He does appeal to science, which is always a good thing. Brooks cites new evolutionary perspectives on morality which should be welcomed: our moral judgments are fast (intuitive) emotional evaluations, mostly shaped by our social upbringing, in societies favoring cooperation over selfishness. So far, so good. But Brooks decides that we don’t need philosophy, at least where morality is concerned. Unfortunately Brooks is no philosopher, making unwarranted inferences to overreaching conclusions. Brooks thinks he has help from Jonathan Haidt who recently 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.” So philosophizing about morality is either embarrasingly useless or dangerously distracting, Brooks implies.
Yet Haidt balances this view, as Brooks himself notes, with the correct observation that people can and do control moral intuitions with some reasoning. Can’t we then rightly infer that reasoning about morality must itself have a socially useful function? After all, social discussion and deliberation about what is right and wrong is a feature of every society known to cultural anthropology. Philosophers label such efforts as doing "ethics". Complex societies, demanding diverse moral responsibilities simultaneously, naturally do ethics all the time. Ethics is often inconclusive and ineffective, like many human efforts. But it helped with such things as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the United Nations Charter, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not coincidentally, all of these matters demanded highly rational examinations of religious creeds and prejudices.
Unable to infer any of this, Brooks goes further, telling atheists to beware of faith in reason. "It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning." We may let those called out as "new atheists" defend themselves. Speaking on behalf of humanists, who have been working on intelligently designed ethics for over four hundred years, I defend ethics as necessarily practical, as essential to anything deserving the name of civilization. Specialists in ethics can be caricatured as "high priests" and philosophy always makes for an easy fun target. But everyone does ethics, some better than others, and we all need help. Life makes philosophers of us all, and sooner than you think.
So go ahead and dismiss rational thinking about morality, David Brooks. Meanwhile, us thinking humanists will keep on doing what we’ve been doing all along—helping people figure out how best to achieve the good life together.
#1 diogenes99 on Sunday April 12, 2009 at 5:15am
I am skeptical that the activity of “people figure[ing] out how best to achieve the good life together” or “exuberance or excelsior” (http://tinyurl.com/d3skod) aims at or expresses the summum bonum of ethics. It may express a subset, but it is not the whole picture.
#2 Mike65536 (Guest) on Monday April 13, 2009 at 9:29am
There are only a few possible sources of ethics - our instincts, our culture, or our reason. The former two are often accepted uncritically, leaving the third as our only option if we want to figure out and consciously choose our ethics. Otherwise we’re just imitating our past.
#3 Whispers on Monday April 13, 2009 at 12:37pm
Does Brooks realize that he’s making a self-defeating argument?
He wants to be suspicious of the reasoning of atheists, but why is his own reasoning exempt from this suspicion? I don’t think it is intellectually possible to make an _argument_ against reason, since argumentation is itself a form of reasoning!
It’s the kind of hand-waving nonsenses I’ve come to expect of Brooks.
#4 Dago Red (Guest) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 at 10:42am
David Brooks is the kind of intellectual voice that often make the statistical principle called “regression toward the mean” possible.
#5 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday April 15, 2009 at 10:51am
Talibanis make fast intuitive emotional moral judgments, but I for one don’t want to live by their judgments.
#6 Amos Capps (Guest) on Saturday April 18, 2009 at 6:04pm
Us thinking humanists will say, “We thinking humanists.”
It grates on me to see someone whose intelligence I want to respect make a boner like that.
#7 Socrates, Jr. (Guest) on Thursday April 23, 2009 at 5:34am
Was the term “intelligently designed ethics” supposed to be allusory?