Social MarketIng and Ethics
Willpower and poverty

David Brooks' false dichotomy regarding autonomy and sociality

Mark D. White

Last week, David Brooks' column "It's Not About You" in The New York Times spoke to the challenges that new college graduates face as they enter "the real world," focusing on the change in the imposed structure that has shielded them from life to this point:

More important, their lives have been perversely structured. This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

This is true, no doubt. But then he swings towards his anti-individualistic thesis from The Social Animal:

[T]hey are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

But this is a false dichotomy--as I explain in Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, drawing on Christine Korsgaard's Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, a person defines herself in part by the ties and bonds she chooses to make. These activities are as much an expression of her individualism as anything she might do "by herself." As Korsgaard writes:

The task of self-constitution involves finding some roles and fulfilling them with integrity and dedication. It also involves integrating those roles into a single identity, into a coherent life. People are more or less successful at constituting their identities as unified agents, and a good action is one that does this well. It is one that both achieves and springs from the integrity of the person who performs it. (Self-Constitution, p.35, quoted in Kantian Ethics and Economics, p. 99)

A person's identity can be composed of many identities, such as her caeer, family status, community involvements, political affiliations, and so on, each of which implies its own obligations and duties. But, as I write in Kantian Ethics and Economics:

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. (p. 102)

Near the end of his article, Brooks wrote:

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. As Atul Gawande mentioned during his countercultural address last week at Harvard Medical School, being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.

Of course--through following the rules and fulfulling the role of doctor, Dr. Gawande is expressing his autonomy and his character. One of the key lessons of Kantian ethics is that autonomy is often found in following duty and doing the right thing. Self-control can be seen as the highest expression of autonomy, because it shows that you are not the slave of even your own desires.

Finally, he wrote:

Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

I agree with the general sentiment, of course, but not with his conclusion. Paradoxicaly (in a Zen sort of way), by losing yourself in a task (or obligation, or role), you not only "find yourself," you define yourself.


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