David Brooks is right. Something is wrong with American intellectual life.
Brooks believes that public debate does not address moral issues. Instead, it politicizes.
Surely, debate is too politicized, but it is often hypermoralized. It all depends on how you see moral questions. I suspect that Brooks is referring to the fact that standards for good behavior have fallen by the wayside.
In place of a morality that teaches civic virtue, the culture has fallen into what I would call a guilt-culture morality. Americans today often define their moral being through their hatred of racism and sexism and homophobia and carbon emissions. They define morality in terms of belief, not behavior, in terms of emotion, not character.
The emphasis is misplaced. If, by the term undermoralized Brooks is hinting at the fact that we do not define ourselves as belonging to a nation or a religion, he is surely correct.
We respect, even worship science and big data, but we ignore the wisdom of philosophers and even theologians.
Brooks defines the situation:
The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.
Public debate is now undermoralized and overpoliticized. We have many shows where people argue about fiscal policy but not so many on how to find a vocation or how to measure the worth of your life. In fact, we now hash out our moral disagreement indirectly, under the pretense that we’re talking about politics, which is why arguments about things like tax policy come to resemble holy wars.
Intellectual prestige has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts. These scholars have a lot of knowledge to bring, but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.
References to ultimate questions about the meaning of life make me queasy. They belong more properly to metaphysics than to ethics, and are best addressed by philosophy and theology. Knowing the meaning and purpose of life does not tell you how to conduct yourself in community.
As we have known for centuries, science has nothing to tell us about ethics. In a world where science reigns and where scientists pretend to be able to answer all questions, including ethical questions, public debate degenerates.
Since scientists insist that their views of non-scientific matters—ethics or the existence of God—are demonstrable and unarguable truths, they tend to reject serious debate about their opinions.
Brooks seems to believe that moral conversation involves “the inner life.” He also believes that life is only worth living if we discover its meaning, if we believe that we are living for ideals and ideas. In that he is off the mark.
In his words:
The shift has meant there is less moral conversation in the public square. I doubt people behave worse than before, but we are less articulate about the inner life. There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most.
As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.
This is true among the young as much as the older. In fact, young people, raised in today’s hypercompetitive environment, are, if anything, hungrier to find ideals that will give meaning to their activities. It’s true of people in all social classes. Everyone is born with moral imagination — a need to feel that life is in service to some good.
For a man who is supposedly a conservative thinker, Brooks traffics in far too many idealistic clichés.
This has caused him to miss the larger point. In the past people addressed these larger questions within specific social contexts. They belonged to religions, for example, and found meaning in their membership in those groups. In fact, the Latin word religio means, to bind or to connect.
Religions are not the only social groups that connect people, but they are the ones that specifically address larger issues.
And, dare I say, religions have long since been the sources of the moral teachings that form the basis for our civilization and our culture.
Nowadays, we have replaced religions with pseudo-religions like psychoanalysis and political ideologies. When Brooks says that debates about tax policy can resemble holy wars, he is pointing to the fact that political parties, even factions of parties are among the few groups we feel like we belong to.
And yet, a nation that is divided into factions cannot stand.
When children attend college they rarely learn to respect religion or philosophy. They are certainly not being taught to love their country. They are indoctrinated into politically correct pieties. They are taught that America is the source of all that has gone wrong in the world and that it needs a political catharsis in order to overcome its sins.
They are forced to reject religious dogma and to embrace secular dogmas about climate change, same-sex marriage and gender reassignment. In place of good behavior they learn correct beliefs.
The stronger their beliefs and their hatred for those who think differently, the more they feel like they belong to a cult of true believers.
And yet, this cult has no congregations and no churches. It has no formal social structure. It does not require very much in terms of good behavior or good manners. Thus people feel lost, adrift, unmoored and disconnected.
More than that, these true believers disdain their nation. In itself this demoralizes the populace, and makes everyone feel that being an American is a bad thing.
Many Americans have been taught to criticize and complain, to find fault with the nation, to criminalize its successes and to defame its heroes.
As I mentioned in The Last Psychoanalyst, this bad mental habit makes it impossible to participate fully in the nation’s rituals and ceremonies. It demoralizes people, saps their confidence and makes them feel that their lives do not mean anything.
We are not going to solve the problem by engaging in metaphysical speculations about why we are here. To overcome the problem we will all need to relearn how to love our country, venerate its great people, to celebrate its successes.
That is the problem. I believe that the term anomie describes it best. In truth, Brooks has written about it, well and cogently. I blogged about it here.