Philosophy never ends

David Brooks is wrong: philosophy is far from dead.

Posted Apr 09, 2009

Today I was forwarded by several people a really bad and confused op-ed piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks. It is entitled “The End of Philosophy,” which naturally raised my baloney detector level to yellow alert. Brooks’ main argument is that philosophy’s approach to ethics is “hyper-rational,” and that it does not appreciate the fundamental role of the emotions. Odd, considering that it was David Hume (the 18th century Scottish philosopher, 1711-1776) who famously wrote about how reason and emotion interplay to give meaning to our lives (a much, much earlier statement than the very similar sentiment attributed by Brooks to psychologist Jonathan Haidt).

Brooks tells us that according to cognitive scientists “moral thinking is like aesthetics” and invites his readers to consider an analogy with food. We do not engage in much rational thinking to decide whether we like a dish or not, we simply have — almost literally — a gut reaction to it. Similarly with moral “intuitions,” where people “feel” whether something is right or wrong and act accordingly. So much for two and a half millennia of philosophical thinking, how could Socrates not realize such a simple truth? It apparently didn’t occur to Brooks that perhaps philosophy started out as a reaction to the then prevalent reliance on gut feelings in matters of ethics, and to the violence and injustice that it was bringing to the human lot.

The problem, Brooks continues, is that philosophy ignores science, and in particular Darwin. Evolutionary biology has begun to show how emotions, as well as reason itself, evolved over time, largely to maximize the individual’s survival in a challenging environment (I say largely because evolution is also characterized by contingent events, like meteors striking the planet and wiping out most life forms regardless of how well adapted to their environment they happened to be at the moment of the impact). Moreover, human beings, like some other species, evolved in a situation where a great part of their environment was defined by their social relations, which means that biologists expect a mixture of selfishness and cooperation to have resulted from the continuous shaping of behavior by natural selection.

There are so many problems with this view that I can hardly do it justice here. Let us start with the evolutionary view of morality. I am an evolutionary biologist, and I have no problem with a naturalistic understanding of the roots of moral behavior. But Brooks is happy that the evolutionary view “entails a warmer view of human nature,” because cooperation among individuals is one of its results. However, biology predicts cooperation and other niceties to evolve withingroups, not among groups, because different groups are typically in competition with each other. Which means that a natural instinct to help members of your group (good) also comes with an equally natural instinct to slaughter members of other groups (presumably, not so good).

Let us consider further Brooks’ praise for moral intuitions. It is certainly true that science is demonstrating that humans, and likely other primates, have a strong innate sense of right and wrong. Yet, moral intuitions — just like any kind of intuition — can easily lead us astray. Many conservative Christians, for instance, have a strong moral intuition that homosexual relations are evil and should be forbidden by law. They report having precisely the same kind of instinctual revulsion that we experience for poisonous food. The difference is that a good moral philosopher can explain why such moral intuition is, in fact, wrong: it violates other people’s rights to associate as they please while not harming anyone else. That right cost us thousand of years of cultural evolution, as well as countless deaths, to achieve and defend. Do we really wish to part with it on the strength of a bad analogy?

Brooks himself seems to vacillate on this, as he states that “there are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions.” Ah, and when we do — and remember that these are often “the most important moments in our lives,” where do we turn to in order to figure out whether something is right or wrong? May I suggest a good philosopher, perhaps?

What Brooks flagrantly commits is something known as the naturalistic fallacy, which was first discussed by the above mentioned David Hume. Hume famously said that one cannot seamlessly go from matters of fact (what is) to issues of value (what ought to be) because the first does not entail the second. It is a fact that most people feel or behave heterosexually, i.e. heterosexual behavior is “natural.” It does not at all follow that homosexuality is immoral and therefore should be banned from society. More trivially, reading New York Times columns on a computer screen as I did this morning certainly does not qualify as “natural” behavior (and arguably does nothing to increase my chances of survival and reproduction), but I doubt Brooks would argue that it is therefore wrong.

The point is not that science has nothing to tell us of interest about morality. On the contrary, cognitive science is discovering how human beings make moral decisions and evolutionary biology is unraveling the long and complex history of how we came to develop a moral sense of right and wrong to begin with. This is important stuff, and philosophers would be ill advised to ignore it while developing their own theories. But it is an invaluable aspect of being human that we don’t rely just on instincts, we try to reason things through and talk to each other to see if we can reach a compromise on complex issues about which we disagree. Brooks concludes his column by chastising scientists for having their own limits, often forgetting that “most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.” Kant (a philosopher) would have approved.