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The Social Animal

David Brooks on individuality and sociality: A Kantian perspective

Mark D. White

David Brooks has a fascinating article on new research on human nature in today's New York Times (a condensation, of sorts, of his wonderfully written piece in The New Yorker in January--and, apparently, his new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, which was reviewed recently in The Wall Street Journal). He shares the opinion of many of us here at this blog that most conceptions of human nature and choice in the social sciences are misguided, which inevitably leads to policy failures when people do not act like the policymakers expected them to act. As Brooks writes in the Times piece, "Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else." Exactly.

His preferred remedies for this shortcoming, however, I find more questionable. He goes on to say:

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

The first insight, the power of the unconscious mind, I believe is unquestionable. The second insight I agree with in spirit, though I would quibble over the precise relationship of emotion and reason (as Jonathan and I have done on this blog in terms of Adam Smith--whom Brooks alludes to, and Jonathan discusses here--and Immanuel Kant). But the third insight I very much disgree with, as I discuss in chapter 3 of my book, Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, published next month by Stanford University Press (a summary of which I presented at the recent Eastern Economic Association meetings in New York).

In that chapter, I make the case that a person is best regarded as individual in essence, social in orientation. As Christine Korsgaard writes in the first line of her book Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, "Human beings are condemned to choice and action." Since each person's faculty of choice--however you choose to model or represent it--is her own, she is essentially individual. This does not mean, as most mainstream economists implicitly assume and most heterodox economists fear, that a person does not, or can not, take external influences and concerns into account. A person's thought processes, by necessity, are atomistic--they happen inside her head, after all, and no one else's--but the substance of those thoughts are not. And Kantian autonomy implies both: the capacity for independent thought and the responsibility to be social, that is, to take other people's needs and wants into account.

So contrary to Mr. Brooks' argument, we do not emerge out of our relationships, nor are we not defined by them. Instead we choose or endorse them in the process of what Korsgaard calls self-constitution, creating the persons we want to be, based on what I call character, compromised of judgment and will. Although we have little control over our social world when we are young, upon reaching maturity we are responsible to choose, manage, and reject our social networks, by reflecting on what they imply about who we are and who we want to be.

As I write in my book (pp. 101-102), with respect to a person's social network:

To be sure, social roles, links, and responsibilities also enter into this deliberative self-constituting process, and as with other experiences and choices, the agent is not a passive subject of her social identities. As Korsgaard writes,

you are a human being, a woman or a man, an adherent of a certain religion, a member of an ethnic group, a member of a certain profession, someone’s lover or friend, and so on. And all of these identities give rise to reasons and obligations. Your reasons express your identity, your nature; your obligations spring from what that identity forbids. (Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, p. 101)

But before these identities can become a part of an agent’s practical identity, her sense of self (or character) from which she acts, she must take an active role in endorsing these roles by choosing what groups to join, what people to associate with, and what social responsibilities to assume. Even the aspects of your social identity you are born into—being a child of your parents, a member of your community, a citizen of your nation—must be endorsed by you before they become part of you and reasons on which you can act autonomously. However the social identities come about, they “remain contingent in this sense: whether you treat them as a source of reasons and obligations is up to you. If you continue to endorse the reasons the identity presents to you, and observe the obligations it imposes on you, then it’s you” (Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, p. 23). So like preferences, social identities, along with their constituent roles and responsibilities, are subject to the endorsement of an agent’s judgment based on the moral law; as important as those features are to the agent’s life, they are nonetheless secondary to her character.

So I believe Brooks sets up a false dichotomy: the choice is not between being an isolated individual and a social animal. We are essentially individuals but we necessarily operate in a social world, which in turns affects and influences us, but only to extent to which we allow it to.


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Let me make two comments on Mark’s excellent post.

1. First, his thesis is well-summarized: “Although we have little control over our social world when we are young, upon reaching maturity we are responsible to choose, manage, and reject our social networks, by reflecting on what they imply about who we are and who we want to be.”

As people mature, they surely do choose. People (in America) switch religions, they move from one state to the next, and so on. But there is one sense in which choosing is very difficult. Our infant brains are sponges for information when hormones allow for rapid acculturation. If one spends the first 15 years of life immersed in speaking and thinking in English only, it will be very difficult to pick up other languages and speak as an unaccented member of another language group. Biology to some degree dictates one’s later choices.

For example, as someone who lived for five years as a foreigner in Brazil (ages 10-16), I acquired a pretty good Portuguese accent and vocabulary, and made many friends. Yet I never perfectly fit in. The slang terms and local accents eluded me. I was an “outsider” and would always be so. Biologically, it was not possible for me to join the group of native Portuguese speakers because I started too late.

2. But the more important debate is this: Do social relationships mold the individual (Brooks’ argument) or do individuals exist in isolation from social relationships (Mark’s argument)?

I’m not sure why we should be forced to choose between these two approaches. Why not start by assuming that both cases are true as extremes, and that most of us are somewhere in the middle. Let me justify this: On some aspects our individuality is shaped by some relationships in the past that (for most purposes) permanently make us part of a linguistic or cultural group. There are people at the fringes who give up this identity, but the vast majority of us keep the language of our parents as a primary tongue. Someone might choose to move from New England to the South, or switch from Presbyterian to Methodist, but these are minor choices in comparison to disavowing allegiance to the United States or to Christianity, say.

To state this in neoclassical economic terms: Many choices today are strongly constrained by past relationships, because the costs of change are high and the benefits uncertain. There clearly would be a distribution of people, some of whom have low costs/high benefits of switching, and others in the reverse camp. Most of the rest of us are somewhere in the middle.

Thanks, Mark, for clearly stating the case for the second view. It is helpful in clarifying (for me) why I belong in the middle.

Good points, Jonathan - I see your point about path dependence, that even if we reject certain social ties now, our choices are ineliminably (and often unconsciously) affected by our past ties. Interesting...

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