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David Brooks in today’s NYT:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that.

Really? My, what a strange sort of nihilist you are, David Brooks. I mean, first, there’s the argument that not even food-tasting is like that. Appreciating fine art or wine takes some training and effort.  I suspect this might be a trap to make his interlocutor say something snobbish and elitist. Oops. 

But anyway, I’d compare moral judgments to musical, or better yet, literary criticism, where the texts/problems are complex, and there are many possible perspectives, but reason is central to the enterprise and there is clearly good criticism and bad criticism.

So he argues that emotion plays the primary role in morality, so moral reasoning is really just ad hoc justification of our moral views, which were shaped by natural selection. I guess it’s nice to hear a conservative grant the strength of the Darwinian theory of evolution. This approach pleases him because it shows how people are reliant on religion, culture, and history for their moral views. Notwithstanding the underdetermination of religion/culture/history on one’s moral views (does being white, black, Jewish, or Christian mean you will or won’t have specific moral intuitions?), he contradicts, or qualifies to the point of banality, his thesis at the end of his piece. He notes near the end of his piece that “There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions.”

He is right about the most primitive and atavistic tendencies that are closely linked with personal and genetic survival, such as a fear of death and an affinity for life. But if you take a stock moral quandary, like abortion or world hunger, any normal moral agent will be ambivalent. What do we do when we’re faced with a complex moral problem where evolutionary theory sheds no light? The answer is plain and simple: think.

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