14 September 2011

On the paucity of modern moral reason

Ah, the New York Times, one of the last of a dying breed which actually does its level best to speed its own demise by not actually reporting anything significant (like the completely-fabricated casus belli of the Iraq War) when it actually matters. Often, though, the linked blogs and opinion columns are interesting even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with them - and this is certainly true of David Brooks’ latest, on the general incapacity of young Americans to engage in any meaningful kind of moral reasoning.

Brooks essentially follows in broad strokes the argumentative path already well-trodden by the new virtue theorists and the communitarians: Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and (to an extent) Allan Bloom - that the current moral discourse has had its legs effectively shot off by a practical-theoretical individualism which undermines any attempt to build a consensus around the Good, and that the current lack of rigour with which young people approach moral discussion is a symptom of this rampant individualism. I am sympathetic to this argument right up until the point where I remember that it’s David Brooks writing it.

This is nothing against Mr Brooks personally, only that I believe his general position on the society and on the economy is actually a part of (and a contributing factor to) the problem he is attempting to describe. I am thinking of a column that he wrote nearly two years ago, as the recession was still happening, where he praised the American cultural fascination with an uncertain future. He also participated in a debate with Gail Collins around the same time in which he laid out his position much more clearly. He liked the American model, in which entrepreneurs were given greater mobility, greater flexibility, greater ability to hire and fire at will without regard for the fallout in the labour sector, because it - in his words - led to ‘more exciting lives’.

In that discussion, I believe, Ms Collins rather hit the nail on the head: the sort of ‘excitement’ for which Mr Brooks was hankering came at the expense of job security... though I think it was disingenuous of Ms Collins to suppose that merely having health insurance can make up for having a stable vocation and a stable residence within a community. To some extent, the ‘excitement’ inherent to the neoliberal economy is of a distinctly puerile sort and is (often, though not always) confined to a very specific set of people - the people responsible for making risky decisions (such as the managers of various automotive and manufacturing firms over the past 30 years, or more recently the investment bankers in the run-up to the credit crisis) are in a position to reap the lion’s share of the benefits of success, but the costs of failure are all shunted off onto their employees or onto their clients. As we have seen, those costs can be substantial, and those costs are not simply in lost jobs but also in broken homes and broken communities.

I’ve generally found that when David Brooks veers into social commentary rather than political or economic shilling for the GOP, his writing becomes much more tolerable. Given his past writing, however, I take this recent position with much more than a grain of salt, and implore Mr Brooks to consider that most axial traditions have it that virtue is cultivated primarily within the family and within the community (for Plato and Aristotle, this was the polis; for Confucius and for Mencius, this was the kingdom or guo 国; for the Hebrew prophets, it was the congregation or qahal קהל). Any meaningful, sensible virtue ethic must take the form of proper roles lived out in some form of community, whether academic or religious or civil - it makes no sense to support, on the one hand, a return to axial moral thought; and on the other to support a neoliberal economic structure which has no reason to respect community ties.


  1. Great post. This reminds me of an article I once read in the Guardian that argued that youth unemployment in Portugal, brought about by recession and austerity, would force young Portuguese people to stop being so attached to their families and towns and go abroad to look for work.

    Of course, it is always the poor who must uproot themselves and become nomads to look for subsistence. More affluent people actually tend to have more stable lives.

    As far as David Brooks and his “exciting lives” idea, I think he just does not understand that many people (I would say most people) do not want “exciting” lives, or at least not the exciting lives that neoliberal policies bring to most people.

    If by an “exciting life” Brooks means jetting around the world with Monica Bellucci on my arm, then yes, that would be great. But if by “exciting life,” he means going from temp job to temp job trying to find stable work that pays a living wage, then no thank you, give me a boring, Hobbit-style existence any day!

  2. Thanks for the comment, John!

    You certainly bring up a good point that it isn’t so much that stability is being overriden or thrown off as a ‘very bad thing’ - even by Mr Brooks in his argument with Ms Collins! - but rather it is presented as another consumer option for the upper middle-class prospective homeowner in the market for ‘authenticity’.

    Hence (to use an example from the Great Lakes urban exchange conference I just came back from), the various urbanist projects which ideally are supposed to create a neighbourhood of mixed-income residents, but have instead further exacerbated the process of gentrification.