Brooks on the End of Philosophy

Here is an unpersuasive column by David Brooks on what he calls the end of philosophy, or at least the end of moral philosophy.

Brooks argues that recent developments in science have disproved the conception of moral reasoning that began with Socrates and Plato, in which we reason from general moral principles to particular moral judgements.  Brooks says that recent scientific research shows that we arrive at particular moral judgements intuitively rather than by reasoning to them from general moral principles.  Brooks also suggests that our moral intuitions are innate and that evolutionary psychology probably explains why we have the specific moral intuitions that we do have.

Brooks is attacking a stawman.  The philosophical tradition has never understood moral reasoning the way that Brooks characitures it in this column.  certainly, Socrates and Plato never suggested that we ordinarily derive particular moral judgements from general moral principles.  Indeed, the whole point of the early socratic dialogues was that most people generally cannot if asked explain how their particular moral judgements are derived from a set of coherent general moral principles.  Socrates thought this objectionable.  He believed that we ought to be able to state general moral principles that explain our particular moral judgements.  And, he thought that if we cannot provide general moral principles, then we cannot be said to know that our particular moral judgements are correct.  But there was never any notion in Socrates that people ordinarily derive their particular moral judgements from their knowledge of general moral principles. 

The context of the early Socratic dialoges was that people in Socrates time (as in our own) frequently disagreed with each other about particular moral judgements.  Socrates was looking for a method to resolve these disagreements.  The search for general moral principles was that method.  Socrates’ method assumes that most, but not all, of our particular moral judgements are consistent with the set of general moral principles that on reflection we endorse as correct, and that we can revise any of our particular moral judgements that are not consistent to bring them in line with these general moral principles.  Socrates never argued that we arrive at the bulk of our particular moral judgements by deriving them from general moral principles in the way that mathematicians derive theorems from axioms.

Brooks suggestion that our moral intuitions are explained by evolutionary psychology is especially pernicious.  On brooks account, it is not possible to resolve moral disagreement by any rational method or to revise our particular moral judgements based on rational  criticism.  Moral life becomes essentially arational and arbitrary.  (Some part of our moral intuitions might be innate.  But if all of our moral intuitions are innate, then reasoning and discussion become futile).

Strangely enough, towards the end of the column Brooks takes it all back.  He says that,

Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

But if we can sometimes use reason to override our moral intuitions, then all Brooks is left to justify his enthusiasm is his characiture of the philosophical tradition.

EDIT:  Apparently .I’m not the only one to rise to the defense of philosophy.


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