October 15, 2006, Op-Ed Columnist, A Moral Philosophy for Middle-Class America, By David Brooks, New York Times.
Some people are religious conservatives, who believe that policies should align with the transcendent moral order of the universe. Other people are social libertarians, who believe government should be neutral on values issues, and individuals should be guaranteed their own private space to work out their own solutions to moral questions.
But others of us are social traditionalists. We differ from the religious conservatives in that we're not sure about a transcendent moral order. Furthermore, we think it's both too sectarian and too lofty to try to pattern government policies on God's law.
We also disagree with the social libertarians. We don't think government can be neutral on values issues. Nations are held together by shared beliefs. People flourish because they have been encouraged by society to adopt certain habits and behaviors. It's a chimera to believe individuals come up with solutions to moral questions alone; human beings are social creatures whose actions and views are profoundly shaped by the social fabric that binds them.
We traditionalists observe that when policies fail, it's usually because they are based on inaccurate assumptions about human nature. So we don't base our thinking on the abstract arguments of theology. Nor do we base it on economics, with its image of profit-maximizing individuals. We begin our thinking with a study of what human beings in particular places are actually like.
We know, for example, that human beings are wired to form attachments with each other. As Daniel Goleman writes in his new book, "Social Intelligence," the subconscious mind is able to detect nonverbal emotional messages that the conscious mind is not even aware of. Babies cry in sympathy with other infants. Young children use "mirror neurons" to imitate and learn. As adults, our brain and cardiovascular functions are influenced by the people around us, as we instinctively mimic their emotions.
We are engaged, Goleman writes, in endless "protoconversations," and you get these social contagions. A mood or change can sweep through a group or a nation as people subconsciously mold one another's behavior.
All of this was anticipated by Adam Smith nearly 250 years ago. In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," Smith based his theory of morals on the intense sociability of human beings (rather than on divine law or the idea of maximum individual autonomy). His approach is a starting point for social traditionalists today.
Smith argued that more than just about everything else, people hunger for approval. We feel intense pleasure when we experience the sympathy of others. In a well-structured society, he continues, our desire for sympathy leads us to restrain our selfish or egotistical behaviors.
Furthermore, Smith continues, we not only want to feel praise, we want to feel praiseworthy. We want to act in ways that would deserve praise, if a wise, impartial spectator happened to be watching us. In our best moments, we want to live up to the ideals our society has gradually engraved upon us.
So for Smith, the crucial policy question was: How do you embed people in relationships that will discourage selfish behavior and emotionally reward virtue and self-control?
Today, while the religious conservatives and the social libertarians have their culture war flashpoints how many crèches can you fit on the head of a publicly funded pin? the traditionalists are interested in how to strengthen institutions that breed responsible people. How do you encourage marriage at a time when 70 percent of African-American babies are born out of wedlock? How can you embed young men in American cities, or in Iraq, in the constructive world of work, so they won't drift into the world of violence? How can you build preschool programs so children from chaotic homes will have at least one stable place to develop self-control? How can you assimilate immigrants so they will internalize the social norms of the United States? How can parents keep cultural garbage out of their homes?
In the 1980's, Smith was known as the apostle of free-market capitalism. But these days attention has shifted over to his social philosophy. The culture war has become self-parodic, so people are hungry for a morality that is neither absolutist nor nihilistic. As the economy has opened up opportunities, it's become clear many people lack the cultural capital to take advantage of them.
A Republican Party in danger of dividing between religious conservatives on the one side and libertarians on the other might return to these traditionalist values after the coming deluge.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company