nagel on brooks


Still, even if empirical methods enable us to understand subrational processes better, the crucial question is, How are we to use this kind of self-understanding? Brooks emphasizes the ways in which it can improve our prediction and control of what people will do, but I am asking something different. When we discover an unacknowledged influence on our conduct, what should be our critical response? About this question Brooks has essentially nothing to say. He gives lip-service to the idea that moral sentiments are subject to conscious review and improvement, and that reason has a role to play, but when he tries to explain what this means, he is reduced to a fashionable bromide about choosing the narrative we tell about our lives, “the narrative we will use to organize perceptions.” On what grounds are we supposed to “choose a narrative?” Experiments show that human beings feel greater sympathy for those who resemble them — racially, for example — than for those who do not. How do we know that it would be better to counter the effects of this bias rather than to respect it as a legitimate form of loyalty? The most plausible ground is the conscious and rational one that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone’s suffering, so these differential feelings, however natural, are a poor guide to how we should treat people. But reason is not Brooks’s thing: he prefers to quote a little Sunday school hymn about how Jesus loves the little children, “Be they yellow, black or white / they are precious in his sight.” This is an easy case, but harder ones also demand more reflection than he has time for. Brooks is right to insist that emotional ties, social interaction and the communal transmission of norms are essential in forming individuals for a decent life, and that habit, perception and instinct form a large part of the individual character. But there is moral and intellectual laziness in his sentimental devaluation of conscious reasoning, which is what we have to rely on when our emotions or our inherited norms give unclear or poorly grounded instructions.

more from Thomas Nagel at the NYT here.