I normally try to stay away from taking pot shots at David Brooks columns, but today’s raises a question that informs a lot of my political critique and which I reflect on a lot personally.
Jason Trigg is Wall Street guy with a conscience. In fact, it was his moral concerns that led him to work there in the first place. He wants to maximize the good he can do in the world, and using his energy and talents to make lots of money, and then redirect that money toward the people who need it most, and for whom it can make the biggest difference, is what he’s decided will achieve that.
But Brooks cautions the young philanthropist and encourages him to reconsider the path he’s chosen and the principles which led him down it. In fact, the New York Times columnist is so seemingly opposed to the boy’s self-less consequentialism that he makes widely incomplete and unrelated arguments against it.
Some of the points I’m going to raise were born of a Twitter discussion about the subject which I originally tried but ultimately failed to Storify (because Storify is a UI disaster). The main issue though is the following: Brooks wants to argue against consequentialism, an ethical tool aimed at, in part, liberating individual moral agents from various cultural prejudices and biological instincts, by appealing to those norms and intuitions.
Brooks has three main challenges to the “Trigg approach.”
1. The Medium is the Massage
At the risk of butchering Marshall McLuan’s (in)famous contention, I’ll paraphrase Brooks’s first claim as being, “you cannot use bad incentives to do good things.” Disregarding the empirical validity of this proposition since Books himself never offers it, I’ll just focus on the reasoning behind it.
Capitalism works according to profit motive, the profit motive is immoral, or at the very least amoral, and because people have a tendency to internalize what they habituate, a life committed to it will become corrupted by it. As a result, whatever Trigg’s intentions going in, his moral goals will eventually be undermined by the means he’s chosen to satisfy them.
This argument is weak because of the dearth of empirical evidence Brooks marshals in support of it, but also because I don’t think that even Brooks believes that everyone who works at a hedge fund is warped. Brooks tries to dance around it, but ultimately this appeal rests on the claim that capitalism itself isn’t just inherently inhumane, but that this inhumanity will necessarily be instilled in its closest adherents, and also become the overriding mode in which they operate.
2. It’s Unnatural
Brooks gives his tenuous position away when he writes, “I would be wary of inverting the natural order of affections.” While he advances it as a suggestion, his challenge to Trigg only makes sense if there’s a real possibility that this is the case, so I’m going to review it without the qualifiers.
Aristotelian that he is, Brooks wants to claim that Trigg’s very decision to try and maximize the good he does will itself be his undoing. There is some “natural order of things,” and this means achieving some balance of sentimentality and rationality that doesn’t stray too far from Brooks’s own cosmopolitan ideal (which I assume consists of averaging people’s biological impulses with Western Modernity and then combining it with whatever seems true and common sense to David Brooks).
As a result, consequentialism is grossly perverted in Brooks’s mind because of how much it seeks to diminish the roll of the human sentiments. That’s how Brooks gets from, “You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far — rationality — and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around — affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence,” to,
“Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god.”
3. Categorical Imperative
Don’t turn yourself into a means in order to treat other people as ends, chides Brooks, even if that means allowing them to die. Brooks dismisses consequentialist approaches to morality out of hand because he doesn’t think we, “merely want to know if [other people] have done good. We want to know if they are good.”
For Brooks, it matters more how people live than that they live, or more precisely, that they follow pursue a labor of love rather than one that maximizes global utility. Channeling his inner Jedi Master, Brooks unleashes a mess of nonsensical alliterations (“to become a specialist without spirit”) and empty aphorisms (“to have logic but no wisdom”), before asserting his moral preference one last time, “If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.”
And so Brooks leaves us wondering the exact question which Trigg’s own actions pose: why go to Wall Street instead of Africa? The answer of course is that Trigg wants to save people’s lives, and that is the love which drives his labor.
I doubt that Brooks would find anything wrong with a farther and mother who work five jobs between them in order to afford adequate housing in a good school district where they still have enough left over to save for college. In fact, something tells me he would find their sacrifice not only admirable, but morally commendable (if not necessarily morally required).
He wouldn’t, in fact, recognize the parents’ work ethic and calculating savvy as some kind of screwball rationalism. He might even contend that they didn’t forgo work for which they were actually passionate, but that the work of raising their children was what they were passionate about. Which only goes to show the pitfalls inherent in ethical schemes hitched to the traditional and familiar.
For instance, how exactly does Brooks rank moral concerns? Is it more important to eliminate disease and poverty, or to increase opportunity for the working and middle class? Is the potential self-actualization of one person worth the lives of a hundred?
Some might cry foul on using this kind of language to evaluate a virtue ethics approach, but the ranking has to occur at some point. The cold rationalism which Brooks seems to think makes consequentialism a non-starter is necessary even for Kantians and Aristotelians.
Unless Brooks has a knock-down, or even moderately interesting argument, for why I have a moral duty to help the unemployed in my community find jobs, but not the unemployed in other cities, or states, or countries, his concern for keeping morality local has no basis.
What makes the localism of Brooks even more specious is the fact that Africa isn’t an accident. The global south did not magically just appear one day–it was not fated by pernicious Greek Gods nor was it inevitable. In fact, concentrations of disease and poverty are more often than not the direct or secondary result of intentional exploitation, perpetuated not by chance but by determined indifference.
At the end of the day, the issue isn’t that Brooks subscribes to values which don’t align with a consequentialist outlook, it’s that Brooks adherence to his espoused values is inconsistent. Consequentialism is not an opposing ethical regime, it’s a natural corrective to the holes and incongruities caused by ad hoc moralizing, like the kind which subsumes not just Brooks writing, but most people’s.