The End of Philosophy. (El fin de la filosofía)

Published: April 6, 2009

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, "Human," is that "it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found."

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, "Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but ... what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment."

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. They 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. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably 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."

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there's an increasing appreciation that evolution isn't just about competition. It's also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don't just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. 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.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They're good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people's moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

Bob Herbert is off today.

Does the free market corrode moral character?

This is the fourth in a series of conversations among leading scientists, scholars, and public figures about the "Big Questions.". All this interesting work can be viewed in:

Jagdish BhagwatiTo the contrary.
Jagdish Bhagwati is University Professor of economics and law at Columbia University, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of In Defense of Globalization. He writes widely on public policy and international trade.

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John GrayIt depends.
John Gray is emeritus professor at the London School of Economics. Among his recent books are False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (Granta) and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Penguin).

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Garry KasparovYes, but...
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov is a leader of the pro-democracy coalition The Other Russia. He is the author of a book on decision-making, How Life Imitates Chess, and speaks to business audiences worldwide. He lives in Moscow.

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Qinglian HeNo.
Qinglian He is a Chinese economist and a former senior editor of the Shenzhen Legal Daily. She is the author of The Pitfalls of Modernization: The Economic and Social Problems of Contemporary China and The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China.

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Michael WalzerOf course it does.
Michael Walzer is professor emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He is a contributing editor of the New Republic, co-editor of Dissent, and the author, most recently, of Thinking Politically.

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Bernard-Henri LévyNo! And, well, yes.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His more than twenty-five books include The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and, most recently, No One Sees God.

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Bernard-Henri LévyCertainly. Or does it?
Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher, has written more than thirty books, including the New York Times bestseller American Vertigo (2006) and, most recently, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (2008), both published by Random House.

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Kay S. HymowitzYes, too often.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. Her most recent book is Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.

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Tyler CowenNo, on balance.
Tyler Cowen is Holbert C. Harris Professor of Economics and director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His latest book is Discover Your Inner Economist, and he blogs at

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Robert B. ReichWe'd rather not know.
Robert B. Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has published twelve books on public policy and has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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Ayaan Hirsi AliNot at all.
Born in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali emigrated in 1992 to the Netherlands, where she served as a member of parliament from 2003 to 2006. She is the author of the bestseller Infidel and a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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John C. BogleIt all depends.
John C. Bogle is founder and former CEO of Vanguard and president of the Bogle Financial Markets Research Center. His many books include The Little Book of Common Sense Investing and Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, which will be published this fall.

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Rick SantorumNo.
Rick Santorum, a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007 and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995, contributes a twice-monthly column to the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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