Rodin Thinker - flickr user MarttjOk, I gotta go off-topic for a few moments to point out some silliness in David Brooks’ New York Times column on ethical reasoning.  I mean, this part is perfectly fine:

Moral judgments are…rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

I don’t think many people dispute this, really.  We all make snap judgments about what’s fair and what’s moral; and philosophers have been aware of this for centuries.  But weirdly, Brooks seems to think that it’s a genuinely new insight—and, weirder still, that it’s rendered moral reasoning basically moot.  

The assumption behind [Socrates’s] approach to philosophy…is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it…

The rise and now dominance of [the] emotional approach to morality is an epochal change… It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people.

But isn’t the whole point of moral reasoning to challenge our gut intuitions about what’s fair and moral?  Isn’t there a very real need to reflect, and use reason, when our moral intuitions conflict?  In some ways, the whole point of “reason” in ethics is to have a guide when our intuitions come into conflict with one another.

So to me, the “gut reactions” that Brooks hails are merely the starting point for any ethical deliberation, not the conclusion.  And while Brooks tends to espouse tradition as a guide to moral action, there are plenty of areas where tradition fails miserably.  Would the civil rights movement have been possible if there were no challenge to the dominant culture’s intuitions about justice and fairness?  Will we be able to respond to the threat of climate change, if we simply rely on moral intuitions that were formed when CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere posed no long-term threat?

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Brooks; he makes some interesting points.  Yet I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that we should defer to our gut intincts when making choices about fairness.  Given how often our gut reactions have failed us in the past—and the fairly novel moral challenges that face us in the coming century or two—I think we can find some better guides than raw nerves.

[Photo courtesy of flickr user marttj.]