A couple more items in our ongoing ‘coverage’ of David Brooks’ new treatise on human nature, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

1. The NY Times Book Review gave some thoughtful if ultimately suspect/predictable ‘pushback’ this past week. That is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the reviewer, Thomas Nagel, is engaging in the exact behavior Brooks is describing, i.e. dressing up an emotional reaction in intellectual language. But his summarizing is helpful, and his conclusions are nevertheless to be taken seriously:

The main problem that Brooks addresses in this book is how to understand the relation between these two mental domains. His aim is to “counteract a bias in our culture. The conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”…

We may think that what we believe and do is largely under our conscious control, and we may believe that we should try to increase this control by the conscious exercise of reasoning and will power, but Brooks says that this is all wrong. Nondeliberate emotion, perception and intuition are much more important in shaping our lives than reason and will. Knowledge of what makes us tick, Brooks argues, does not come primarily from introspection but must rely on systematic external observation, experiment and statistics.

So what has been added by recent cognitive science? Most significant, according to Brooks, is the accumulating evidence of the many specific ways that our lives and conduct are less under our conscious control than we think… 

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.

Life, morality and politics are not science, but their improvement requires thought — not only thought about the most effective means of shaping people, which is Brooks’s concern, but thought about what our ends should be. Such questions don’t appeal to him, since they cannot be settled by empirical evidence of the kind he feels comfortable with. Brooks is out to expose the superficiality of an overly rational view of human nature, but there is more than one kind of superficiality.

2. Brooks winsome and intermittently hilarious recent TED talk about his recent discoveries is very much worth your attention. Slight warning: from a bondage-of-the-will perspective, it may jump the shark slightly in the final few minutes (but hey, I’ll take what I can get):