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The War on Us

David Brooks

New York Times columnist David Brooks has long been engaged in a stealth campaign against the discoveries of science – especially neuroscience – that validate a more egalitarian and humanistic political order.

Brooks has skillfully branded himself as the Pundit Who Will Tell You About New Findings in the Human Sciences. But in Brooks’ hands all the new science somehow becomes justification for top-down, conservative and even authoritarian government. It’s all just a magical confirmation of Hobbes.

It’s no coincidence that in his column last week Brooks called “mind-altering” Steven Pinker’s ridiculous new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In that book, Pinker, another stealth authoritarian, credits the rise of the nation state and urban police with what he claims is an evolutionary profound reduction in human violence. Libertarians take note of yet more statist bullies infiltrating your cells.

I give them their due. Brooks, Pinker and their allies are good at the game. Brooks uses just enough fuzzy qualifiers and hints of truth in each of his sentences that he seems less opposed than he is to egalitarian democracy.

Conservative political philosophy is built upon the Hobbesian premise that only an elite authority can keep us from killing one another. So, when the human sciences are discovering that we are hard wired for empathy and cooperation – not self-interest and war – Brooks & Company move into action.

They first attack empathy, misrepresenting it as some kind of hippy conceit that would lead us to a peaceful utopia if we’d only pay attention. This is Brooks’ ploy in last week’s column, “The Limits of Empathy.”

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

Invoking a long-discredited argument that emotions and reason are separated by some kind of Berlin Wall of the mind, they argue that empathy is emotional and inadequate as a guide to moral action.

Well, I’m not aware of any neuroscientists – or anyone else, for that matter – who argue that the human capacity for empathy is a stand-alone guide to moral action. As George Lakoff and other scientists have explained, the capacity for empathy is part of the embodied mind’s judgment system.

Ever since empathy was given a name (about 100 years ago), people have worried that it involves a suspension of judgment or a loss of self. It involves neither. It is just the capacity to understand and feel connected to the world around us. It facilitates cooperation. Without it we could not learn or love.

If this was just a matter of a heated academic dispute, I’d be content to let them fight it out at obscure seminars. But we are talking about the fundamental understanding of human being.

Conservative political philosophy depends upon a certain understanding of human nature: we are selfish brutes who pursue our self-interests without regard to the costs of others. Therefore, we need a strong guiding hand – usually the strong guiding hand of the gang making the argument – to keep our essentially violent nature at bay.

This view, of course, also becomes justification for great crimes against humanity. Wall Street thieves, after all, are only doing what conservative philosophy says we should do: pursue our self-interest.

The new understanding of human nature doesn’t deny our capacity for violence, nor does it envision the possibility of a pure, egalitarian utopia that’s transcended the human need for leadership. We do need leaders and experts of all kinds. It does, however, give the lie to the core principle of conservative philosophy. Hence, the stealth attacks from Brooks & Company.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith