The “End of Philosophy” and the Start of Humanism

April 9, 2009

New York Times columnist   David Brooks proclaims the End of Philosophy , but we must be skeptical. He does appeal to science, which is always a good thing. Brooks cites new evolutionary perspectives on morality which should be welcomed: our moral judgments are fast (intuitive) emotional evaluations, mostly shaped by our social upbringing, in societies favoring cooperation over selfishness. So far, so good. But Brooks decides that we don’t need philosophy, at least where morality is concerned. Unfortunately Brooks is no philosopher, making unwarranted inferences to overreaching conclusions. Brooks thinks he has help from Jonathan Haidt who recently wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.” So philosophizing about morality is either embarrasingly useless or dangerously distracting, Brooks implies.

Yet Haidt balances this view, as Brooks himself notes, with the correct observation that people can and do control moral intuitions with some reasoning. Can’t we then rightly infer that reasoning about morality must itself have a socially useful function? After all, social discussion and deliberation about what is right and wrong is a feature of every society known to cultural anthropology. Philosophers label such efforts as doing "ethics". Complex societies, demanding diverse moral responsibilities simultaneously, naturally do ethics all the time. Ethics is often inconclusive and ineffective, like many human efforts. But it helped with such things as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the United Nations Charter, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not coincidentally, all of these matters demanded highly rational examinations of religious creeds and prejudices.

Unable to infer any of this, Brooks goes further, telling atheists to beware of faith in reason. "It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning." We may let those called out as "new atheists" defend themselves. Speaking on behalf of humanists, who have been working on intelligently designed ethics for over four hundred years, I defend ethics as necessarily practical, as essential to anything deserving the name of civilization. Specialists in ethics can be caricatured as "high priests" and philosophy always makes for an easy fun target. But everyone does ethics, some better than others, and we all need help. Life makes philosophers of us all, and sooner than you think.

So go ahead and dismiss rational thinking about morality, David Brooks. Meanwhile, us thinking humanists will keep on doing what we’ve been doing all along—helping people figure out how best to achieve the good life together.