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Kantian ethics and economics in The Montréal Review

David Brooks on moral individualism: The false dichotomy lives on

Mark D. White

In today's New York Times, David Brooks writes in "If It Feels Right" about a recent study of young adults in America that reveals their incapacity to think in moral terms:

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

This is horrible but hardly surprising--anyone who has taught an introductory ethics class knows that most college students enter the class woefully unprepared to discuss ethical issues in anything but the most uninformed and vague terms. This is not to say, however, that they have no moral sense; Intro to Ethics 101 is hardly required to be a good person, even if it does help one to talk about it. But the inability to discusss one's moral beliefs suggests that they may not be well considered or formed, and this is still of much concern.

Brooks chalks this up to moral individualism:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

Unfortunately, Brooks is falling into the false dichotomy between individualism and sociality again. (See my earlier posts here and here for more on Brooks and this issue.) Morality doesn't have to come from society in order to focus on society. As Immanuel Kant wrote, the individual can and should realize, independently of external authority (though never completely separate from it), that he or she has duties and obligations to other people. The ideal source of a person's moral code is her own reason (not her "heart"), but the content of that code is nonetheless eminently social.

(As always, for more on the compatibility of individuality and sociality, see Chapter 3 on my book Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character.)


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Thanks for commenting on this article, which was also disturbing to me.

You state: “As Immanuel Kant wrote, the individual can and should realize, independently of external authority (though never completely separate from it), that he or she has duties and obligations to other people.”

It seems one should distinguish normative ethics from positive ethics. Your claim is that normatively people should think about society a certain way. However, I think the positive evidence would support the view that that people do acquire knowledge about their duties and obligations from external authorities (parents and teachers) who help them connect with and process their moral sympathies. That is the starting place, and if people are not emotionally committed to doing what is right, no amount of intellectual reasoning is going to persuade them otherwise.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your point. But this is the conundrum for Kantian ethics, it seems to me. How do we reconcile the rational ideal with the emotional Homo sapiens? (I am not arguing that humans don’t use logic or rational powers; I am arguing that the base emotion of sympathy is the reason people develop ideas about society, not from logical proofs.)

Sure, Jonathan, I see your point. What you say is not completely inconsistent with Kant, who wrote that we all learn our basic ethical principles from authority while young. But when (or if!) we mature, we have to come to realize the rational basis of morals and not just rely on their emotional significance for us. Kant does not deny our emotional sides, but maintain that we can and should channel or control them. This is very normative, of course, but it does not contradict positive moral psychology, since we care certainly capable of this, right?

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