Can Neuroscience Tell Us Anything About Virtue?


In a new bestseller, David Brooks contends that the “new sciences” point to the incredible reality and importance of old-fashioned things like education, character formation, and virtue.

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David Brooks’s recent bestseller, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, is an unusually rich book for one aimed at popular audiences. Writing in the dramatic form of a novel, Brooks develops unique and insightful reflections on the new “sciences” of human nature—neuroscience, genetics, and psychology—in a serious attempt to understand what they have to tell us about the contours of a life well lived. Comparing his method to Rousseau’s in Emile, Brooks narrates the lives of two protagonists, Harold (from an upper-class background) and Erica (from more difficult circumstances), intending to show concretely how the new sciences can illuminate our understanding of education, human development, daily choices—and even happiness and love.  Although some critics have disparaged the book and its popular success, Brooks accomplishes something truly original in his synthesis, meriting the thoughtful consideration of readers.

Those who appreciated Brooks’s earlier books—Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive—will find The Social Animal suffused with his usual comic and perceptive observations about contemporary culture. For example, the reader is introduced to new social categories and concepts, including the “Composure Class” (“lavish spending on durables and Spartan spending on consumables. They’ll give you a ride on a multimillion dollar Gulfstream 5, and serve a naked turkey slice sandwich on stale bread from the Safeway”), and  “Sublimated Liquidity Rage” (“the anger felt by Upper-Middle-Class Americans who make decent salaries but have to spend 60 percent of their disposable incomes on private-school tuition”).

However, The Social Animal goes beyond mere social commentary and explores deeper philosophical questions about the animating sources of human behavior. Drawing on the latest studies from disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics, Brooks highlights the role that the unconscious (or semi-conscious) mind plays in informing our everyday perceptions and judgments. His treatment is at once erudite and unorthodox.

Of course, the orthodox interpretation of the new sciences slouches toward determinism. In this view, neuroscience, genetics, and psychology reveal us to be the unwitting pawns of biochemical processes, hardwired at birth and changed only through pharmaceutical intervention. Yet by drawing on a vast range of research, Brooks suggests that the findings of these fields, rightly understood, in fact point to the incredible reality and importance of old-fashioned things like education, character formation, and virtue. Moreover, he shows how success in many aspects of life depends crucially upon capacities of self-discipline, empathy, and insight that must be cultivated rather than merely inherited. Although biology matters, our biological endowment is remarkably plastic. We are not born as individuals strapped to a particular fate. Rather, we are truly social animals, whose remarkable potential comes to be cultivated, exercised, and enjoyed in communion with others.

Stated like this, these conclusions might appear quite abstract, but the genius of Brooks’s narrative is that he brings them to life in a way that is convincing on both an academic and a literary level. Granted, the book may not win any prizes for “best fiction,” but to the extent that its characters are occasionally stilted, this not only reflects the difficulties of integrating scientific commentary, but likely also the real lives of many Americans. Sometimes the truth is not stranger than fiction.

The most significant intellectual achievement of the book is that it provides a reasonable, overarching framework through which to understand a vast jumble of narrowly focused, quirky, and seemingly trivial academic research churned out by biological and social scientists. These findings, Brooks suggests, are often produced in “academic silos,” where it can be difficult for researchers studying, say, the hormones involved in mammalian lactation to address the larger question of “so what?”

Brooks performs a crucial task that is seldom pursued in the modern research university; namely, he surveys and integrates the output of specialized disciplines to put together a comprehensive account of their implications for human flourishing. Indeed, at a number of points, Brooks tacitly critiques contemporary research that has become unhelpfully narrow due to the demands of scientific tractability. This is particularly evident in the social sciences, which can remain blind to any factors not easily quantified, and in educational policy, which is so often crafted around “factual” knowledge and measurable benchmarks. The result, Brooks suggests, is that “we are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.”

The central social teaching of the book comes in its critique of rationalistic views of human nature. Although Brooks does not doubt the importance of “rational” aspects of the conscious mind, he emphasizes the influence of “emotional” aspects, while also highlighting the interaction of both with subconscious processes such as memory, intuition, biochemical cues, reflexes, innate and learned responses, priming, anchoring, framing, etc. The outcome is a resounding defense of the British Enlightenment (Smith, Hume, and Burke) over the French Enlightenment (Descartes, Condorcet, and Comte) when it comes to politics, economics, and social philosophy.

In brief, humans are not dry, rationalistic calculators whose lives fit neatly into fixed models of behavior. Contrary to the dreams of rationalist planners, a humane society must find ways to address the human person in his or her fullness: emotions, biases, traditions, and all. Brooks illustrates this at one point with the example of Harrison, the hyper-rational consultant whose high IQ proves incapable of dealing with the vagaries of a changing world. However, the protagonist Harold’s stint at a Washington think tank late in the story provides Brooks a larger canvas upon which to sketch out the social implications of the British Enlightenment’s core truths. The illuminating result is a non-ideological blend of the thought of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Oakeshott.

The Social Animal has drawn many critics. One prominent reviewer faults the book for not having definitively resolved the question of whether and how human reason can properly evaluate human ends, as if the book was intended to be a work of analytic philosophy. (Incidentally, although the book indeed fails to resolve the central question of philosophical ethics, philosophers themselves have done a terrible job addressing it over the last century.) Another reviewer appears certain that the new sciences should counsel us toward nihilism, cites one study contra Brooks, and ultimately rejects the “happiness” of the narrative.  However, the book—ironically—enables us to ask whether such reviewers are themselves motivated by their formal criticisms, or rather by their underlying biases against Brooks’s somewhat conservative political and philosophical conclusions. The thoughtful reader will have to judge for herself.

It is, of course, true that extrapolating from scientific research to a full vision of human nature requires much invention and artistic license. This speaks to the permanent limits of science, however, not the impropriety of novelists. The Social Animal reminds us that some kinds of knowledge can only be fully communicated and appreciated in narrative form. Moreover, we should always be able to ask of any narrow “scientific finding” how it relates intelligibly to our understanding of human life writ large. Brooks attempts precisely what needs to be done if a vast array of compartmentalized, social-scientific, and biological research is ever to amount to something meaningful.

It is, indeed, difficult to satisfy the demands of scientific commentary and literary depth together. For a book with “love” in the title that compares itself to Emile, the romantic elements are conspicuously underdeveloped (with the phenomenological often taking a back seat to the biological). Ultimately, though, Brooks condenses and communicates a vast range of research and presents it in a way that is entertaining and instructive, and that explores fundamental human questions. One can hardly ask for more in a popular book. There is even reason to hope that it may inspire, in both admirers and critics alike, a deeper appreciation for the rational animal’s social fulfillment.

William English is currently a Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He received his PhD in political science from Duke University in 2010.

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