One
of the most e-mailed articles from the New
York Times

last week was a quirky piece entitled the “End of Philosophy”.
Four very important people feature in this Op-Ed of “epochal
change” and not one of them is Barack Obama or Madonna.

The
first very important person is Jonathan Haidt.
Associate Professor
in Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Haidt
lectures on the human experience of reason and emotion using the
simile of elephant-riding. The rider is conscious, controlled thought
and the elephant represents the emotions. By pulling on the reins you
can tell an elephant where to go, unless of course the elephant wants
to do something else. In the same way we can suppress or direct our
emotions except when we really feel like doing something else.

Citing
Antonio Damasio’s work on patients with frontal cortex problems,
Haidt states that “Reason and emotion must both work together to
create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the
elephant) does most of the work.” Emotionally intelligent people
learn to distract the elephant in order to get what they want rather
than take the bulging animal head on. Focusing on happy thoughts is a
better strategy than lamenting bad ones.

Another
important result from the research is that reasoning comes after the
fact and is usually nothing but an exercise in confabulation ie,
rationalizing a decision that was already made. It’s hard to win a
moral argument because the explicit justification that people often
give for their stance is post
hoc
and not the real reason that motivates them.

The
second very important person is David Brooks himself. He is the
resident conservative on the New
York Times
op-ed page.
David has read some of Jonathan Haidt’s work and tried to tease out
its consequences for society – that morals are a matter of taste,
that we should forget about the rationalizations of the ‘New
Atheists’, that (moral) philosophy is too bookish, etc. In short,
“The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality
is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions.” There may be some truth in this: something is afoot when a “conservative” thinks (whatever he thinks “thinks” means) that morality is just a matter of feelings. 

The
third and forth very important people go unnamed but their presence
is all the more keenly felt through their absence. Aristotle and
David Hume are, so to speak, the elephants in the room. Both are well
known philosophers with widely circulated works on the role of
emotions in moral reasoning. That a major newspaper should tell us
that ‘we have just discovered how important emotions are in
morality’ serves as a primer on why we should all study long dead
philosophers.

What
could Aristotle tell us about the dominant role of emotion in our
everyday practical reasoning? For starters, we form habits. On the
basis of those habits we can be held responsible for our actions –
most especially when there’s no time to think. A kind person
instinctively comes to the aid of another person in need. A selfish
person ‘walks on by’ without a second thought. The formal study
of these reactions tells us much about the kinds of habits we should
be looking to acquire in the pursuit of happiness. Needless to say,
the gut responses of the kind and practically wise person are a more
reliable path to the flourishing life than the snap judgments of a
man steeped in vice. These and like insights in the Nicomachean
Ethics
have served as a blue-print for philosophers from ages as different
as Thomas Aquinas and Elizabeth Anscombe.

David
Hume is the foremost English philosopher of sentiment and
passion-enslaved reason. He also happened to state the following
three centuries ago in his Treatise
on Human Nature
:
“Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of
itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality,
therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.” Epochal change
anyone? Hume is also famous for the argument that “ought” does
not automatically follow an “is”.

Brooks’s
article should really have been a plea for more philosophy! If you
are near-sighted, start wearing spectacles. The true ‘end of
philosophy’ is to acquire wisdom. (If you are a philosophy student
you will have spotted my ambivalent use of the word ‘end’
straight away). Brooks is not on the path to wisdom if he remains
ignorant of the contents of a Philosophy 101 course. I invite him to
sit in on a few lectures. He would soon learn that you can’t
readily use reason to dismiss reason. Neurologists can furnish us
with ever-more accurate understandings of how the brain works and how
we actually arrive at many of our judgements on, say, an issue like
torture. Neurologists are not equipped to tell us whether torture is
actually ‘wrong’. For that we need reasons and thus philosophy.

Dr
Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest. He lectures in philosophy in
Sydney.