Rational Agency and the “End of Philosophy.”

(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.

17 thoughts on “Rational Agency and the “End of Philosophy.”

  1. I thought this Brooks article was awful, but I don’t contest the data he cites. It is just remarkably unclear what bearing, if any, this data has on the practice of moral philosophy. jj, you say, of the application of reason to action, that “it isn’t clear it should occupy such a place.” I certainly agree that this isn’t clear, and makes for a lively topic of debate, etc. But I hardly see how this normative question is settled by the psychological data. Maybe you can connect the dots for me?

  2. Of course, the project of connecting the dots is actually very large, and it’s being undertaken by a number of people, with some agreement, though certainly not complete agreement.

    It’s also really unclear what ‘the normative question is.’

    Are answers to the normative question constrained by the kinds of moral deliberation human beings are capable of and by the kinds of moral motivation they can have? If you think that’s true, you might also want to argue that such facts sufficiently limit the content of morality that we end up with a pretty clear idea of what at least some of its general features will look like. I’m not connecting dots here, but maybe pointing out one kind of approach. It might be Hume’s.

    Do notice that I said that there is a lot to argue with in the article. And in fact I’m not a moral philosopher; philosophy of mind is more my thing, and I was in fact addressing the issue of rational agency.

    For what it’s worth, I think there’s another layer to the discussion that is hard to articulate. Cognitive science is replete, I think, with a kind of normative consideration. Steve Quartz, who is cited in the article, has an article with Read Montague that claims that cognitive science looks at how cognitive capacities promote a creature’s survival in its niche. (This is quite an advance on the computer model.) I think there’s a corresponding assumption in a lot of “empirical philosophy” work that at least to start with we are considering how people function well. (Perhaps a bit more accurately, we’ll look at people who at least function within their society, and not the outliers in maximum security prisons, for example.) I don’t think the idea of functioning well is as robust as eudaimonia, but it still is full enough to provide some answers to questions about morality.

    Yikes, it’s late, I’m jet lagged and have talked philosophy much of the day. I hope this makes sense.

    And why might it be feminist? omigod. At least because it questions whether the detached life of reason provides a good perspective on the excellences manifested in the thoroughly embodied life of actual human beings.

  3. I think the array of critical responses to Brooks is much more interesting than his original column. It seems to me that most of them fall into one of two basic patterns:

    1. Brooks is making the naturalistic fallacy*, so the work of Quartz and Haidt doesn’t threaten P, where P is something like normative ethics.
    2. Hume said everything Brooks (and, presumably, Quartz and Haidt) is saying, 250 years ago: the emotions play an important role in moral judgment.

    The naturalistic fallacy* is not GE Moore’s version (which has to do with natural and non-natural properties), but Hume’s version (which has to do with `is’ and `ought’). What’s funny, then, is that pattern 1 uses Hume to criticize Brooks, while pattern 2 sees Brooks and Hume in substantial agreement.

    The key to sorting out the relation between Hume and Brooks is to recognize that pattern 1 is concerned with normative ethics, while pattern 2 is concerned with moral psychology. At least according to Rawls (I just finished the section of his Lectures on the history of moral philosophy on Hume a couple days ago, in a nice coincidence), Hume has absolutely no interest in what we call normative ethics; he cares about how we arrive at moral judgments, not their content. And, rereading Brooks, I think this is what he’s talking about as well. He doesn’t say, for example, that the claims (factual or ethical) of the New Atheists are false; he says that they assume a bad theory of moral psychology.

    This suggests that pattern 1 isn’t really a relevant criticism of Brooks.

  4. Nice, Noumena.

    I’m inclined also to think that one can’t separate normative ethics from moral psych.

  5. jj, `the normative’ question(s)’ are the typical questions of moral philosophy such as: how should I live? how should I treat other people? how should I act in such-and-such circumstances?

    I absolutely agree with the suggestion that these normative questions are constrained by the facts about moral psychology, but that’s hardly news, right? And these qualifications on how to do moral philosophy hardly threaten the “end” of philosophy, right? And I have to admit, I don’t quite see how any of this bears on the question whether the “detached life of reason provides a good perspective on the excellences manifested in the thoroughly embodied life of actual human beings.” Are you saying that scientific data about the realities of moral psychology is not assimilated rationally, but rather that this is data gathered in some *other* way which underwrites some feminist thesis?

    Look, my real argument against Brooks is that what he is saying is not really new or interesting and it hardly justifies the incendiary title of his piece.

  6. I, too, was seriously put off by Brooks’ piece–both the incendiary title and the absurd conclusions he was trying to draw. Hilzoy from Obsidian Wings has put the point far better than I ever could: http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/04/philosophy-not-dead-yet.html

    Also, as a feminist with decidedly Kantian leanings, I’m pretty leery of the often far-too-quick move from “X is critical of rationality” to “X is thereby inherently feminist-friendly”.

  7. C – the quick move is not one I’ve made. If you are wondering what one might find feminist friendly in a Humean approach, I’d combine Baier on Hume as a woman’s moral philosopher with Genevieve Lloyd’s paper in Feminist Interpretations of Hume. Of course, Lloyd’s The Man of Reason looks at ways in which the man of reason is exclusionary and anti-feminist.

    Colin, I think the title doesn’t raise an interesting substantive point. We all know he wasn’t talking about all of philosophy.

    But the point that rational deliberation is not what we do at our best really can’t be addressed well without taking up the extensive empirical/theoretical literature. A classic piece is Dan Kahneman’s 2002 Nobel lecture, which is on the web through his site at Princeton. His view, that reason is slow, faulty, serial and not what produces most of what we do, is exceptionally well established. As John Doris was pointing out Thurs morn (at the APA), the evidence is that rational reflection makes things worse.
    Quite independently of philosophy, there’s a lot of discussion of how rationality can mess up a world’s economy; the reasonings of the hyper-clever Wall Street quants are part of what got us into the current global financial mess.

    There are so many sterling researchers; Bargh is another place to look.

    None of this says we can’t ever reason well; you can sit down and revise and revise your ideas and writings and come really to understand some ins and outs. Unfortunately for the rational agency theories, human being cannot make decisions to act like that except in quite special circumstances. We are made to act quickly and our social lives require quick and accurate reactions. However brilliant someone with Asperger’s is, she may well find that reasoning her way to actions and reactions is painfully often a poor substitute for the automatic and unreflective way most of us are interacting.

    I’ve off to the next APA round. Vancouver, by the way, is a magnificant city!

  8. I’m willing to buy that there is a significant gap between ideal rational agency and effective everyday agency. Even that rational decision making can often make things worse… I don’t know if this is true, but it is entirely possible for all that I know. What I think is strange in all this is that the division between agency and theory is sometimes being glossed over. Brooks’ article seems to me, in virtue of its title and some of the sweeping claims he makes at the end, to be targeting the practice of philosophical theory, in particular moral theory. Whether or not “rational deliberation is what we do at our best” is an issue about how people navigate the world, make good decisions, and live good lives. It may turn out that the answer is that we live best when we do not deliberate rationally about every decision we make, but *if* this is true we only know so by rationally deliberating about it, right? So the data here doesn’t threaten the practice of moral theorizing in any significant way that I can see.

  9. It may not come as news to (some) philosophers that reasoning cannot take place without reference to feelings, that human thought is not at its best when attempting to replicate cold machine logic, but many members of the general public still believe in a dichotomy between rational thinking and emotional thinking. I think Brooks’ article does an important public service by clarifying that such a dichotomy does not reflect actual human functioning, and that the supposed privileging of the hypothetically emotion-free aspects of cognition is misleading at best.

    To the extent that in many cultures, women have been considered less capable of emotion-free reasoning (and, indeed, have at times insisted that affect and reasoning are inextricably linked), the increasing acknowledgment that even the most rational of men do not reason logically is an important vindication of previously scorned “female” knowledge.

  10. I’m sorry, JJ. I can see how it looks like I was accusing you of the too-quick move. That wasn’t my intention. (The dangers of commenting before coffee!) Sorry about that.

    I should definitely reread Lloyd’s and Baier’s work on Hume; it’s been a while. But Lloyd’s argument in _The Man of Reason_ has always struck me as too strong. I’m not ready to jettison the entire tradition just because parts of it have been misused for anti-feminist purposes.

    I guess I just think it would be more productive if we’d all stop insisting that the views of people with different takes on rationality were inherently inimical to feminist goals. (And, to be clear, I can be as guilty of this as anyone.) Is there feminist potential in this new work in moral psychology that Brooks is on about? Undoubtedly. But I also think there’s still a lot of untapped feminist potential in more traditional views about rationality.

    Enjoy Vancouver!

  11. Thanks, C. It might well be that if we looked at rationality there’s be more agreement between us.

    lga: nice point, I think. The article was not really written for us.

    Colin: Theorizing about actions is certainly not ended, but such theorizing, when not pretty deeply informed by the facts, is. Unfortunately, it looks very much as though an enormous amount of so-called intuitions about the good life, etc, are too often highly indebted to images of ourselves that are at some odds with what we are actually capable of doing and being.

    From what I’ve heard here, Robert Adams’ new book on virtues and the good might be a start at seeing how revisionary some of the recent research is.

  12. I’ve seen this point made on several other threads on Brooks’ piece, but since no-one’s yet said it here: Op-ed writers don’t always write the titles for their pieces. Often, editors do. So it may be that the some editor, not Brooks, is responsible for the excessively strong title, and the excessively strong (even `absurd’) implications people read Brooks as making in his last few paragraphs.

    For my part, I think Brooks is only making claims about moral psychology, not about normative ethics, and that these claims are quite reasonable, given my limited knowledge of the state of things in moral psychology. hilzoy’s distinction (thanks for the link, C!) is extremely useful and important: (a) what role does reasoning play in our everyday moral judgments? and (b) what role does reason play in the justification of those judgments? The most charitable interpretation of Brooks is to read him as speaking only to (a), and saying little to nothing about (b).

    Now, in order to take the column as a serious argument for the end of moral philosophy, you have to make the clear mistake of thinking that moral philosophy is basically just attempting to answer (a). And this is a clear mistake because moral philosophy is also attempting to answer (b), as hilzoy points out.

    Now, if you think that moral philosophy takes absolutely no interest whatsoever in (a) (as Colin sometimes seems to), then you think Brooks’ column is one huge non sequitur. But if you think that moral philosophy is interested in (at least) both (a) and (b), then you should think that Haidt, Quartz, Hume, et al., do present serious challenges to (some views arguably widely held in) some parts of moral philosophy. And, in particular, that Brooks’ conclusions can’t be so easily dismissed as irrelevant, absurd, incendiary, etc.

  13. jj, with respect to what you say re: theorizing without the facts and/or theorizing from biased intuitions, I think we are in agreement.

    Noumena, I am actually trying to make a slightly different point than the one I think you take me to be making. You comment that I may not think moral philosophy takes an interest in questions about the role of reasoning in everyday judgments. Not so, I agree this is a perfectly viable topic for moral philosophy and one with which some moral philosophers are engaged.

    I’m not sure how to clearly make the point I want to make here, but it is something like this: data about moral psychology can shape or challenge moral *theory*, but it is not obvious to me, and indeed I would question whether such data in any way shapes or challenges the *methodology* of moral theorizing. I just want to distinguish the two and submit that it is a significant distinction and that it is challenges of the second kind that would be deeply worrying (to philosophers, or moral philosophers, or some such species of academic).

  14. I think the (a) and (b) distinction is good, but there’s a very clear implication for (b) that I think Brooks is about; namely, it can’t be done by the apriori+common sense educated-white-anglo intuitions alone. At least as far as I can see, that’s actually quite a challenge to the way normative ethics is usually done.

  15. “there’s a very clear implication that [normative theory] can’t be done by the apriori+common sense educated-white-anglo intuitions alone…. that’s actually quite a challenge to the way normative ethics is usually done.”

    Maybe at this point we are splitting hairs too finely for it be of much use, but I question whether this sort of thing *really* challenges the methodology of philosophy and/or normative ethics, per se. There is an issue of levels of description here. At the most general level, my view is that moral theory is (to put in Quinean terms) just more theory and so it should be put together the same way any other theory should be put together: by collecting and responding to appropriate data, regimenting and explicating key concepts, trying to systematize intuitions and data into principles or laws, and revising the theory in the face of recalcitrant implications, etc. On this understanding of methodology, the insufficiency of “apriori+common sense educated-white-anglo intuitions” is really just the point that limiting ourselves to that data set falls short of good methodology. In other words, I would like to characterize this not as a to philosophico-ethical methods, but a challenge to how well those methods have been applied by certain theorists.

  16. Year before last a number of new PhD’s who were coming out of schools where moral psych was empirically influenced and seen as bearing on moral theory ran into departments that did not recognize it as philosophy. My own, I blush to say, was one.

    So it may seem obvious that a priori normative theory is wrong-headed, but there are a lot of normative moral theorists with a pretty dismissive attitude to experimental results. People who say, “well he isn’t addressing the normative question” often do not have the idea that the normative question is heavily constrained by what we are liked and that one gets close to what we should do just by looking at what we can do.

    It’s also the case that empirical results can do something like deconstruct some moral distinctions. But now I have to go board the plane.

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