Comment on Brooks
The NYT appears not to be running this, so here's the letter I wrote to the editor in response to David Brooks' goofy column on "The End of Philosophy" last week.
To the editor:
David Brooks unhelpfully confuses two claims: that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment, and that moral judgment is immediate, emotional, and entirely intuitive. He is right that these have both been put forward as accounts of the evolution of morality, but wrong to think that they go together. Aesthetic judgment, after all, is subject to considerable refinement by education, reflection, and the acquisition of acquired tastes. Brooks says that when you put something that tastes disgusting into your mouth, "you just know." But we outgrow sugar cereals for lobster, or fruit punch for fine wine, even if the acquired taste seems disgusting at first. Ethical judgments, too, are probably educable, even though they are built on a visceral reaction.
The "warmer view of human nature" Brooks mentions is suspect as well. Empathy and altruism "within our families, groups and sometimes nations" are compatible with brutal behavior and dehumanization outside those boundaries. One of the traditional worries about relying on moral emotions and moral intuitions rather than moral argument has been that it leaves no space to think past the edges of our groups.
Jacob T. Levy
Note to students: yes, I thought about using my traditional counterpart to "fine wine" in that argument, but was afraid that it involved a trademarked name brand and therefore couldn't be run in the Times.