(With thanks to BH for drawing the Brooks’ to my notice.)
At the American Philosophical Association the idea of rational agency can seem firmly in place. “Our rational agency” can seem to apply unproblematically to us and our actions, or at least to the ones we want to focus on and analyze.
But it isn’t clear it should occupy such a place. And David Brooks’ op-ed yesterday gives a reasonably accurate picture of a very different view emerging from a great deal of recent work in empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
Moral judgments … are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. …
The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.
The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence….
The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions.
There are plenty of details to object to in the article. But the overall picture of human normative functioning, which is now coming into philosophy largely through kinds of experimental philosophy, is exceptionally important. And, of course, very Humean. And in a number of ways very feminist.
Of course, there is no sign in Brooks’ article of the history, nor are the recent feminist discussions typically recognized in the relevant literature. Perhaps we should try to change that.