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David Brooks’s Dubious Virtues

An account of the moral life must consider the differences between traditions.
David Brooks’s Dubious Virtues

In The Road to Character, David Brooks offers a series of quasi-hagiographic biographies of (sometimes) admirable human beings with the aim of teaching his audience an alternative way of thinking about the old Socratic standby “how ought one to live?” The answer, according to Brooks, is that we ought to concentrate on cultivating our eulogy virtues (“they’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being”) and less time developing our résumé virtues (“the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success”).

The book raises several intriguing questions, all of which relate in one way or another to the connections between virtue, character, and action. Brooks doesn’t answer any of these in an adequate fashion—but then, he admits that he “was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. … I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard … to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am.” There isn’t a better description of the job of the talking head, so I give Brooks credit for that.

The first question that struck me was why and for whom the book was written. Pico Iyer noted in the New York Times—where Brooks is a conservative columnist, of course—that the book reads like a commencement speech. In keeping with that idea, the tone ranges from being earnest without being serious to being colloquial without being clever. Brooks drops in bits of trivia about the sex lives of his subjects (“Dr. Johnson was a tender and grateful lover” while Montaigne “despaired over his own penis”), drops an f-bomb here and there (sin is “our perverse tendency to fuck things up”), and compares Dr. Johnson and Montaigne to East and West Coast rappers. This seems to be meant to convince his readers that he’s not an old fuddy-duddy. The book was derived in part from a course that Yale University invited Brooks to deliver on moral philosophy. Perhaps next semester, Yale students will be offered courses by Maureen Dowd on Leibniz and monadology or Jonah Goldberg on the private language problem.


The second question concerns the cast of characters that Brooks has chosen to emphasize the importance of virtue. Their variety makes it difficult to say anything coherent about character based on their lives. We have stereotypical celebrations of American political events in the 20th century represented by Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day (feminism, check), Eisenhower and George Marshall (World War II and the Cold War, check), and A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (the civil-rights movement with a soupçon of the gay-rights movement, check). Indeed, Brooks lets us know that he’s not some sort of raving reactionary when he tells us that “none of us should ever wish to go back to the culture of the mid-twentieth century. It was a more racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic culture … it was also a more boring culture, with bland food and homogeneous living arrangements.” It is true, of course, that there were no cell phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no Tinder, no cable TV, and no Chinese takeout. People actually had to read books and speak to each other, for God’s sake. And, by the way, that was the culture that produced all of Brooks’s American exemplars.

Brooks claims that he has chosen this group of subjects because, on the one hand, they shared on some occasion the experience of having had to struggle to subdue some particular weakness and, on the other, they share a common humility. There is a connection between the latter quality and Brooks’s own political sensibilities, which are neither odious nor profound. But there is also a contradiction here between Brooks’s celebration of every single “rights” movement of the past century and his condemnation of the self-centeredness and even selfishness of his fellow citizens. There is not a single sentence in the book that addresses the possible connection between the radical transformation of American political and social culture in the 20th and 21st centuries and the breakdown of community and family life. The divide between those who take seriously the possibility that unfettered rights-based liberalism is incompatible with any conception of moral virtue as habituated character and those like Brooks who think that we can still have it all informs the skepticism that traditionalists feel toward high-profile conservatives like Brooks, who have surrendered at every turn to those who prefer a radically different America.

Brooks ends the section with a discussion of George Eliot (she’s courageous because she pretended to be married when she wasn’t), St. Augustine (sin is important because it makes you ambitious), Dr. Johnson (a serious man), Montaigne (a not-so-serious man), Johnny Unitas (a good old-fashioned stoical American who lived in the bad old days), and Joe Namath (a bad newfangled American who lives in the good new days). By the end of hagiographical material, I had concluded that Brooks had more or less engaged in a sortes Vergilianae in the Dictionary of Biography to come up with this miscellaneous bunch. In fact, it’s quite obvious that several of Brooks’s cast of heroes and heroines would have considered others to be primary examples of bad character: St. Augustine would have condemned Eliot and Rustin for sexual transgressions, while most of the males would fail the racism/sexism test, even—or perhaps especially—Broadway Joe.

The final question or concern is whether the book’s argument is ultimately unconvincing in the way that it is produced by Brooks. There is an old joke that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who classify the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. Brooks is most definitely in the former class. We get the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues, along with Adam I and Adam II. (Adam I prefers the résumé virtues.) There is a contrast between utilitarian logic and moral logic, which leaves the reader unclear whether Brooks is aware that utilitarianism is an actual theory of moral action. (He may not think that it is a convincing one—I don’t either—but utilitarians offer their theories not as alternatives to moral life but as accounts of moral life.) There are the cultures of self-effacement and self-promotion, which lead to the characters “Little Me” and “Big Me.” There is the party of reticence and the party of exposure. There are the people who see themselves as the center of the universe and the people who see themselves as part of the universe. There are the moral realists (like Brooks, of course) who see us as we are and moral romantics who believe that humans are naturally good. Finally, there are those who live for happiness (the bad people) and those who live for holiness (the good people). This quasi-Manichean reduction of everything to a good side and bad side is one of the least realistic accounts of moral life that I’ve ever read, and it certainly suggests that Brooks has his own romantic illusions about the moral life.

The primary argument that Brooks makes is that there are two different ways of thinking and acting in the world, and contemporary Americans have moved too far away from the virtues of humility and self-effacement and immersed themselves in a self-aggrandizing, individualist, and romantic moral culture. This may well be the case, but Brooks doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what the former might involve.

Brooks claims that modern Americans have lost the quality of humility, and this is one of the central virtues that needs to be encouraged if human beings are to flourish. Brooks correctly recognizes that humility, when understood as a virtue, is closely connected with a belief in the ineluctably flawed nature of human beings. In the Christian tradition, the flaw is connected with the sin of pride, but Brooks empties the concepts of sin and pride of almost any real meaning: sin is merely the “perverse tendency … to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher … pride is building your happiness around your accomplishments, using your work as a measure of your worth.” Neither of these ideas is connected with any religious notion, much less any orthodox version of Christianity, in which pride is the sin of preferring a self-chosen world to a God-made world and where sin itself consists in rebellion against and alienation from God. Brooks has hollowed out all of the concepts connected with the traditional Christian virtues, and this is likely because he doesn’t quite understand that virtue is a question of actions within the context of a particular moral and/or political tradition, and modern liberal America is inherently anti-traditional.

The hollowness of Brooks’s account of the virtuous life also manifests itself in his reluctance to offer any serious argument about the character of the human telos. It is central to any version of virtue ethics from Aristotle through Aquinas to Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre (no relation) that the proponent offer an account of what the good life for human beings is. Brooks makes no real attempt to do so, which accounts in part for the miscellaneous nature of his biographical selections. Different traditions have different scales of virtues. For example, humility, which is central to Brooks, was not a virtue at all to Aristotle and the Greeks or to Cicero and the Romans. It was a sign of human weakness and was only admired in a backhanded way if the person manifesting it was actually servile and thus deservedly humble. Pride may goeth before the fall, but the Greeks and Romans expected important people to know their own importance, so pride was not considered a vice.

Finally, Brooks suggests on several occasions that character is necessarily born out of an inner struggle with personal weakness. Again, this is contrary to much of the intellectual history of writing about virtue. Both Aristotle and Aquinas claimed that character is formed by habituation in one’s youth, and virtue becomes easy after becoming habitual. Further, and more importantly in the current context, it is almost completely dependent upon living in a relatively homogeneous and virtuous community—something quite obviously foreign, and therefore irrelevant, to the American experience today.

If Brooks wants to save his soul, he should do it on his own time. I did, however, learn one valuable lesson from reading him: to steal a line from Peter DeVries, deep down, he’s shallow.

Kenneth B. McIntyre is associate professor of political science at Sam Houston State University and the author of Herbert Butterfield: History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics.



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