Thursday, July 30, 2009
David Brooks has recently proclaimed the end of philosophy—moral philosophy, anyway (“The End of Philosophy, The New York Times, April 7, 2009). Exploring some of the recent research in neuro- and cognitive science, Brooks argues that the best scientific understanding of moral decision-making and action increasingly suggest that the classic “philosophical” picture of moral thinking as simply a matter of reason and deliberation is a wild fantasy. When we act, reason does not coolly deliberate the facts, and recommend the rational course of action. Rather Brooks suggests that, quoting the University of Virginia psychologist, Jonathon Haidt, “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.” This line of thought is, of course, philosophical. Haidt’s quote is a paraphrase of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume’s famous dictum, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave to the passions and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” Brooks isn’t proclaiming the end of moral philosophy as such, but rather the end of one particular style of moral philosophy. There are, however, three reasons to be skeptical about Brooks’s proclamation.This is deep stuff, and I frankly am unqualified to tackle it on its own level. I recommend all to read it.
But it does give me an opportunity to ask a related question. How did moral philosophy get itself into a position where it was vulnerable to this kind of attack?
In the West, and in particular in the largely Christianized West, we have ceased to reason about such things. As Evangelicalism has swept through the land, a movement where its entire mental energy is constrained by finding new, different and novel ways to present "the gospel," morality and ethics have been reduced to matters of dogma rather than serious contemplation. We have allowed a movement to become the church, and as such the church has ceased to perform many of the roles it should be playing in the lives of individuals and of society as a whole.
For example, there was a time when a historical period like we have recently experienced would have resulted in countless sermons and numerous Sunday School classes on "Just War." I have seen little outside the blogosphere, and that was fairly limited. If a church addressed the issue at all, it was more pep rally than education.
"Our church is against abortion." Cool! - Why?
Brooks argument holds water becasue we have largely abandoned the playing field. How do we get back to it?