David Brooks' column in the New York Times on Monday had me worried. "The end of philosophy," said the headline. Not good, for those of us who do it for a living.
Surely the headline-writer should have read more carefully. What Brooks heralds is the end of moral philosophy, not the end of philosophy in general. That's the lesson he draws from Jonathan Haidt, who has done some very interesting work to suggest that moral philosophy is in trouble. The trouble is that philosophers take their intuitions extremely seriously, and then try to construct arguments that mesh with them and support them. But Haidt's model of moral psychology suggests that the reasoning is just "confabulation." The intuitions aren't glimpses of the truth, but gut feelings with roots in emotion and culture. The reasoning we do to shore them up is mere rationalization. (See "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail" at Haidt's website.)
I think Jonathan Haidt's work poses a genunine challenge, and it's for good reason that it's getting attention within metaethics, the area of ethics that delves into the nature of moral truth and moral knowledge. But the significance of it shouldn't be exaggerated. One bit of exaggeration is to be found in Brooks' editorial. He's one of these people who's always looking for a weapon to use against the so-called new atheists. It's hard to see how this could make any sense, but he thinks Haidt has somehow demolished reason, giving supremacy to faith.
What? Just curious-- With reason demolished, what approach should we take to building bridges and keeping airplanes aloft? Right. We should still use reason. If we're sometimes fooling ourselves when we think we're using reason, and we're really just rationalizing, it doesn't mean that that's what's always going on. And nothing about Haidt's research suggests that's what's going on any time but in the aftermath of having a strong moral intuition. You think there must be something very wrong with eating dinner off a toilet seat (Haidt's example), so you cast about for the reason why. You have the gut feeling that gay marriage is bad, so you labor for hours to find an explanation. In these post-gut-feeling moments, you're not using reason as much as you think you are. That's Haidt's argument. He's not making a general attack on reason.
As I said, Haidt raises great questions for metaethics. We don't need to cast aside reason because of his research. The new atheists use of reason is not being called into question (and by the way, Haidt is an atheist!). But what's more, we don't need to cast aside moral reasoning either. The thing is, we have lots of moral problems we urgently need to solve, and we've got no way to solve them besides thinking them through.
Thank God for Nicholas Kristof. He resuscitated philosophy--moral philosophy, that is--in his Thursday New York Times column, "Humanity even for animals." We've got a huge problem with the way animals are treated in the contemporary world, and he credits moral philosopher Peter Singer with getting more and more people to see the problem. Singer didn't accomplish that just with photos of forlorn veal calves and unimaginably crowded chicken barns, but with arguments. The arguments are in tension with pre-existing gut feelings ("they're just animals!"), not rationalizations of them. But they make sense, so they convince many people.
While metaethicists and psychologists do the needed work to think through the nature of moral truth and moral knowledge, somebody needs to figure out what we should do about animals, global warming, and extreme poverty. These aren't just factual issues, they're issues about value and responsibility and our obligations. While it makes sense to reflect on what we're doing, when we work on ethical problems, it makes no sense to stop doing it.