According to David Brooks, All Morality is Local

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.

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39 thoughts on “According to David Brooks, All Morality is Local

  1. I don’t see anything inconsistent or morally upsetting about making tons of money as a hedge fund manager and giving it to African warlords to fight malaria, but it would be simpler to invest in overseas DDT production.

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    • Tangentially, the way DDT is often used in third world countries offers you about 20 years of low malaria rates and then DDT immune mosquitos. Basically spay and pray, just throwing DDT at the problem.

      For the same reason we’re running out of antibiotics that work. There ain’t enough DDT in the world to kill off all the tetse flies, but there’s more than enough to select for DDT resistant ones.

      Not to mention the havoc it plays downstream, so to speak. There’s a reason the WHO prefers treated bednets and other methods that don’t offer such selective pressures.

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      • I think you’re selling Brooks’ first point short while simultaneously missing the best rebuttal to it. People’s minds do change, and peer group certainly has an effect on that. At a minimum, his coworkers are going to be living a lifestyle based on many times the income he effectively has, and recent posts here have demonstrated the power of the “keeping up with the Joneses” effect.

        At the same time, that’s ignoring the fact that his peer group isn’t really limited to his coworkers. Indeed, Matthew’s original article references his “circle” and the importance of Singer’s utilitarian thought experiment; it also points to other people who manage to give large percentages of their income to charity. My guess is that he’s surrounded (via the internet, at least) by people who, even if they don’t make the same choice as him, understand that choice and share many of the same values that lead to it. The idea of “professional philanthropy” of that sort is something I’ve seen in internet communities before, although usually for relatively small stakes.

        Which actually brings me to another point: I don’t think the stakes of this decision are quite as high as some people, including Brooks, are making it out to be. I doubt Trigg would be choosing to do this if he hated the idea of working Wall Street. I strongly suspect he finds writing software to meet the demands of high-frequency trading challenging and intellectually stimulating. I don’t want to minimize what he’s doing, by any means, but I don’t think he’s selling himself into slavery for the common good, as Brooks seems to be implying.

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      • This touches on an issue that I struggle with. I/we/the developed countries can’t fix Africa. We can’t eradicate the tsetse flies or the other noxious little critters that thrive in the hot wet parts of the continent. We can’t give them the kind of temperate climate in which the grains the people have acquired a taste for grows well (Egypt leads the way, importing on the order of 400 pounds of wheat per person per year, but is not the only country). We can’t provide them with the kind of infrastructure to generate and distribute the (relatively) vast amounts of electricity that are needed to support the necessities, let alone the amenities, of a contemporary developed-country lifestyle for a billion people — with UN estimates of almost two billion people by 2050. I feel alternately heartless and realistic when I think, “There are too many of you, and you live in a place with geographic handicaps — you can’t have this,” meaning a lifestyle like Europe or Japan or the US.

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  2. For anybody interested in DDT issues, google ‘Deltoid DDT’; the blogger there has a series on DDT production, use and limitations. Short answer: there is no worldwide ban on DDT; there are in many nations limitations on using it where its use would be more harmful than useful.

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    • Yes, Silent Spring is the most widely reviled book obviously never read by the people reviling it. :)

      DDT is a poison, like any insecticide. Use it stupidly, and you get resistant insects. Use too much of it, and you poison stuff you didn’t mean to. Somehow that basic point turned into the belief DDT was banned worldwide.

      The US banned it from use in agriculture, and Carson herself never had a problem with it being used for disease control as long as you went for “minimal effective use” rather than “as much as you can”.

      Seriously, the topic of DDT really brings out the idiots. Most of whom are working under assumptions that 30 seconds of Google would show to be fallacious.

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    • Boy, he seems awfully sensitive to the proposition that environmentalists got 30 to 50 million poor third world people killed. ^_^ He even argues that it was important to ban it so that it would continue to be effective against mosquitoes, even though maintaining the effectiveness of an insecticide that can’t be used is absolutely pointless, and of course DDT is pretty effective even against resistant mosquitoes because they hate the stuff.

      It’s true that DDT wasn’t banned, we just made it virtually impossible to buy it and African countries could risk losing all their international aid if they used it, on top of Western trade sanctions. Western aid organizations, which funded most of the health budgets in such countries, refused to pay for it, and organizations like USAID pressured many countries into abandoning it.

      Now WHO is trying to pretend they were on board with it the whole time, instead of being dragged kicking and screaming until making some concessions in 2006, and they still intend to ban it completely, just not quite yet.

      What I’ve never figured out is why African countries didn’t just make it themselves. It’s trivially easy to synthesize even with off the shelf stuff from Walmart.

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      • “It’s true that DDT wasn’t banned, we just made it virtually impossible to buy it…What I’ve never figured out is why African countries didn’t just make it themselves… It’s trivially easy to synthesize even with off the shelf stuff from Walmart.”

        I know nothing about this issue. But given your past record here, I give you no credibility.

        What I find shocking is that you refuted yourself in the span of a few sentences.

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        • Why am I not shocked George buys into that? Here’s a good summary. George there is basically listening to tobacco scientists explain how smoking doesn’t cause cancer. :)

          DDT was never banned for disease control, no one ever TRIED to ban it, and indeed it was happily used right up until DDT resistant mosquitos popped up. Sri Lanka is a famous example, whose overuse of DDT (mostly for agriculture) forced them to switch to another — and more expensive — pesticide in 1969.

          Sri Lanka went from 30 deaths in 68 to half a million by the end of 69, as DDT resistant mosquitos just went ape on the populace before they could bring in another pesticide.

          Basically George’s entire belief there was the result of conflating the 72 agricultural ban (in the US) with a proposed 2001 ban on DDT worldwide for agriculture and a phase-out for disease in favor of better drugs (a proposal that was never enacted) and claiming every malaria death from 72 to present was “enviromentalists” fault. Even though DDT was never banned for use against disease, was used against disease the entire time, and the only related deaths came from DDT resistant mosquitoes that popped up due to overuse.

          In short, those malaria deaths? Were from folks like George ignoring Carson, not the folks listening to her.

          But again, George would know that if he’d bothered to do a minute’s worth of research.

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        • DDT production plummeted after the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, falling from 40,000 tons to 2,000 tons before the US ban in 1971, as it was deregistered in the US in 1968. It still worked, and that’s why African countries are still using it forty years later. It’s just that for a generation or so they couldn’t get it without facing severe penalties.

          As for Sri Lanka, how did the mosquitoes develop resistance in 1968 when Sri Lanka had to stop using it in 1964? (The US stopped paying for DDT programs long before our ban.) In 1963, Sri Lanka had twenty cases of malaria. They quit spraying, and malaria rebounded a couple of years later.

          Virtually every group of physicians treated malaria screamed about the ban, as do organizations like malaria.org. Hundreds of environmental organizations screamed about the threat from DDT, and still do.

          And yes, you can make DDT with a quick trip to Walmart. It was synthesized in the 1800’s. Check spa, plumbing, and painting supplies, and don’t forget aquarium tubing.

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        • Just like climatologists are all sociopaths willing to do anything for a new microscope, including return us all to caveman like existences, environmentalists hate people and want to kill them all to save the lowly fly.

          *eyeroll*

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  3. Having been on both sides of the Charity Thang, as both a giver and receiver, it’s my considered opinion Brooks doesn’t understand the problem.

    It’s rather like the military: six to ten people are required to keep one rifleman forward in the weeds. So what, the guy makes money with the intention of giving a good deal of it away. I did that with Katrina: I saw the storm coming in, I went long HAL options, made a big pile awfully quick, got off the position when I saw Congress poking around, asking about all those no-bid contracts, shorted HAL, made another tidy pile — and gave it all to the Salvation Army.

    It’s not like I was going to be able to rescue those people or feed them. But Salvation Army could. I did my time out there in the weeds, sure, someone ought to be out there. But they can’t stay there if they’re not funded.

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  4. Brooks is concerned that immersion in the amoral profit-seeking of running a hedge fund will eventually corrupt or harden Trigg. The odd part is that I can’t think of another context in which Brooks would admit, must less insist, that Wall Street is amoral or that its denizens are especially lacking in empathy or compassion.

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  5. I think you’re unfairly stating Brooks’s position. Brooks didn’t state these points as arguments, but more as impressions. He’s not saying that this individual will become less virtuous, or that being a trader is less virtuous. He’s saying that living in the environment of traders will tend to make you more like a trader.

    Actually, I think that a lot of Brooks’s writings are like this. I think his form of conservatism is like this: not doctrinaire, not cause-and-effect.

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    • Yeah, this is a more damning attack on Brooks than saying he is really wrong. “He is just musing.” In the most important newspaper in the country. As its most important conservative author. If Ethan is right, Brooks should revise his views. If Pinky is right, he should be fired immediately for incompetence.

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        • It’s an odd warning. It comes out “Wall Street isn’t for people with social consciences; stay away unless your real passions are earning obscene amounts of money and screwing the rest of the world.”

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          • That’s not what he’s saying. You guys are paraphrasing his piece into something unrecognizable.

            If you want to work on a farm, work on a farm. If you want to spend time with cows, spend time with them. If you work as an accountant at Monsanto’s headquarters, you’re not going to get dirt under your fingernails. That’s what he’s saying.

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  6. “He is just musing.”

    I’ve noticed that one of the tricks used by liars and frauds to cover their retreat is to insist that whatever they said, IF it were perhaps maybe not-admitting-anything-here to be other than truthful, also didn’t matter/was just speculating/you can’t prove a causal link between their statements and anything happening……….

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  7. I’m not trying to make an attack on what Brooks is saying by saying that he doesn’t live by it. That would be a fallacy.

    But I’m interested in whether Brooks lives by his advice? (Haven’t read the piece. I’m past my allotted views for the month for NYT and haven’t subscribed.)

    Maybe he does. Maybe he writes only for himself and doesn’t view himself as their for the greater good of society.

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  8. The truly horrifying part of all this? Do you realise, folks, more neurons were fired writing these comments than Brooksie fired in writing this fatuous bit of prose?

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    • Bulls-eye. Brooks has a quiver full of propagandistic vectors he invokes to keep people from getting uppity, and the only effort is finding which one fits the social issue being concern-trolled.

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  9. I find Brooks’ antipathy for moral cosmopolitanism off putting, but I think you’re misreading his concern about the supposed corrosive influence of Wall Street. I don’t think Brooks is particularly horrified by finance work, I just think he’s got a good grasp on how significantly we’re influence by our peers. I saw it a lot in law school: the number of people entering it expecting to do public interest work far, far outnumbers the people who actually wind up working in that specialty after they graduate. I think Brooks is right to be concerned that his commitment to the cause might flag after a decade or two of imbibing the values of h is peers and seeing first-hand the lucre he’s giving up.

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  10. Ethan,

    I always enjoy your posts, and I especially love it when you’re taking someone to the woodshed. You’re on solid ground arguing that this was a rather silly, poorly thought out piece by Brooks. However, I think you take your critique too far, and I think you’re reading too much into the column.

    From my reading there were a few main points that Brooks had that formed the basis of his piece:
    – There is value in good works that cannot be replicated by donations.
    – If you immerse yourself in a potentially morally compromising place like Wall St., don’t be surprised if you become morally compromised.
    – There is value in community, and value in contributing your charitable works/money to your community.
    – You, yes you, are intrinsically valuable; you are not just a means to an end.

    On there own, I don’t find these to be particularly controversial. Personally, I think they make a whole lotta sense. And I think Brooks expressing concern that someone following Mr. Trigg’s example might lose sight of these things. That’s all quite reasonable. Of course, suffering from pundit-itis, Brooks has take this, embellish it, throw in some hyperbole, and try to link it to a rather nice story about a kid trying to help make the world a better place. So it wasn’t his ideas that were wrong, but the degree to which he imposed them.

    And, in fact, I think this is where you erred, as well. You had a valid criticism, but I think you overplayed it.

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  11. It is fantastic that he is donating the money he makes.

    His job probably shouldn’t exist though. We are wasting too many top flight minds on things like high speed trading.

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