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David Brooks on the Latest Evolutionary Studies

They show we’re more social than competitive beings. That makes sense, of course, if we are, by nature, more about the species than ourselves. They also show that moral judgments originate in the emotions, although that’s not the big breakthrough or challenge to traditional conceptions that David thinks. They still have trouble, Brooks adds, in explaining the moral challenge we’ve all been given to live responsibly in light of what we can’t help but know about what we’ve been given. They don’t explain what we do or say in response to personal love and personal death. They also can’t explain, I would add, even the technological dimension of human freedom. (Thanks to Ivan the K.)

Discussions - 6 Comments

I'm no philosopher, but there seems alot there that was anticipated by Aristotle (that we are social beings, that the understandng of a moral principle is not always to live by it).

Does the primacy of emotional reasoning end with moral reasoning? Might emotional reasoning be guiding the conclusions of our evolutionary psychologists?

A friend of mine maintains (and I think accurately) that Brooks' column confirms his Nietzscheanism. This business about how some conclusions are "nice," for example.

Moreover, consider these statements:

"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ft 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.'"

Hume: "Reason is the scout of the passions." Paraphrased by Martin Diamond: "Reason is the pimp of the passions."

There certainly is a Nietzschean element to the new marriage of science and postmodern narrative--the concrete self, experienced through the "user illusion", is nother other than an epiphenomenal reflection of brain activity that is largely unconscious and involuntary. The split between the how and the why, something Nietsche diagnosed well, means that the how of science looks to poetry today to provide the why. Part of the problem is the turn to emotion, something Brooks exaggerates as epochal, is peculiarly impersonal---its a turn away from any deep sense of personal agency in favor of a reductionist account that exhausts personhood in reflexive neurophysiologic activity. So morality is largely emotion but there's no personal, self-aware being that experiences the emotion.

His last paragraph is his best because he seems to see that while emotion is a central consideration in morality, that we are always beings with logos and eros, he also sees that the scientific or evolutionary account of emotion has some very real limitations. The question is not simply emotion per se but the kind of longing that challenges our natural inclinations, that sometimes contradicts and overcomes them, and that seem to be premised on a sense of our own individual importance not supported by nature alone

Ivan is right that the error of the neo-Darwinians, neuroscientists etc. is to assume that emotion is necessarily impersonal, as if it imprisoned us in a process that's beyond personal influence.

"It" "is" "annoying" that the neural net known as "David Brooks" directs the sentences "of" said "David Brooks" (Okay, "I" can't stand using these quotes anymore!) to assert that the turn to emotion in ethics is an epohcal change, as if emotivism, Hume, and Nietzsche never existed. The column format does NOT excuse this. if you're going to do reporting on intellectual trends, please get beyond the tired convention of only focusing on the latest theory being successfully promoted by some self-interested academic movers-and-shakers as the latest theory. Context. Liberal Education. Do respect those things, and show your readers that they need to as well. The real turn here seems to be among the evolutionary pyschology crowd, some of whom are finally getting past the crude War of the Genes (all v. all) narrative and having to admit the social nature of the human organisim. So really, it is turn from a very blinkered view to one less so. At best, some of these guys might even read Arnhart or Masters and edge into genuine political philosophy, and er, you know, start talk talk talking with the likes of Socrates.

"My" emotion is pleasantly tickled by the emotion expressed in comment 5.

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