The End of Moral Philosophy?

David Brooks’s latest is thought-provoking as always, but ultimately it’s a rather puzzling read. He begins with the idea, which will of course be familiar to readers of this blog, that our basic moral convictions are the product less of Socratic reasoning than of a system that throws up moral judgments in a more automatic fashion and allows us simply to perceive, as it were, the rightness and wrongness in the situations we encounter. As someone who’s presently working through Hume’s theory of the moral sentiments with a few dozen undergrads, it’s so far, so good for me. But it’s where Brooks goes from there that leaves me scratching my head:

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably 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.”

Now in the first place, note that these stronger claims are true only if our moral judgments are not only not guided by, but also ultimately impervious to, input from our more “purely” rational faculties; and even if this isn’t so it could still be that reason manages to influence our moral judgments in more indirect ways, perhaps by spreading memes that help to shape our moral intuitions via the process of cultural evolution that Brooks describes in his column’s second part. Reasoning may not have the kind of role in the practical domain that Kant for example might have hoped for it, but it can nevertheless be more than an epiphenomenon.

But in addition to all of this, I think it’s important to see that the role of servant to the high priest of emotion involves a good deal more than mere bowing and scraping. Even if we credit the emotions with the kind of role that Brooks follows Haidt and others in envisioning for them, that still leaves to be done all the work of systematizing all those axiomatic intuitions into a rationally cohesive structure; of working out the tensions, lacks, and – perhaps – outright contradictions among them; of developing a robust theoretical understanding of the good that respects those intuitions even as it moves beyond them toward an articulation of the deeper principles that make them true in the first place; and so on. For it’s not, of course, just the realm of morals that has the sort of inescapably perception-driven status that Brooks is describing here: our understandings of space and time, of quantity and number, of matter and color and life and death, are ultimately shaped by our more basic modes of access to the world in very similar sorts of ways, but by no means does that entail the impossibility of using science and philosophy as tools to deepen and, at times, significantly refine those understandings in precisely the sorts of ways that Socrates envisioned. Philosophy can come in toward the end even if it’s not that relevant at the beginning, and so granting the emotions the first word in the human grasp of morality doesn’t require conceding that they also have the last.

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth.)