David Brooks and This Generation's Moral Vocabulary

Towards the end of David Brook's talk at the Trinity Forum on his book, The Road to Character, Brooks says that his students at Yale are "hungry" for a "moral vocabulary." He lumps both young and old in the same bucket of people who have a paltry vocabulary of productivity and perfectionistic achievement, which is based on external standards, as opposed to a moral vocabulary, which is based on internal ones.

As someone who is a member of the "younger generation" whom he referenced (specifically, the urban and educated youth, which his Yale students would fall under), his statement made me pause. 

Brooks argues that his Yale students lack a "moral vocabulary" because they do not talk in terms of "character" or "virtue." Let us be clear: they may lack a vocabulary of virtue, but they do not lack a moral vocabulary. Brooks himself indirectly points out that when he, a few years ago, notices that when some Stanford graduates were debating the merits of going into finance or consulting, they tended to use a utilitarian logic to evaluate choices based on the outcomes they produced. Brooks pointed out that no one was asking the character-question, “How do I be a good person, no matter what industry I’m in?” That is fair, but utilitarianism is a strand of moral thought. So, really, what Brooks is advocating for is an internal, moral vocabulary.

In his advocacy for a moral vocabulary, Brooks overlooks yet another important way in which we - the urban, educated, young, demographic that both he and I seem to be most familiar with – morally understand our world: power. Just think of our current conversation around #BlackLivesMatter. These days, we are less concerned with internal guilt, and more morally concerned about our privilege, which is shaped by an "external" status (e.g. gender, race, class). To be a white male, for instance, affords you certain advantages in that you do not have to really think about your safety late at night while walking outside, or about how to react to an approaching policeman. We all have privilege to varying degrees, and people accuse each other of “privilege” when it blinds us to the experiences of others and leads us to commit offensive or harmful actions. In fact, having privilege is almost the farthest thing from having guilt, because guilt implies intentionality, whereas privilege is all about having undeserved benefits of power which you are largely not responsible. Our vocabulary of power and privilege is not a vocabulary of internal virtue, but a vocabulary of (ignorant) external oppression.  

In short, our moral vocabulary is caught between the poles of utilitarianism and power, between John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche. Brooks may point out that the problem with our vocabulary is that it is almost completely externalized. All moral struggle, from our perspective, is an externalized struggle, and the primary internal growth necessary is that of awakening or awareness. We simply need to become “aware” of our privilege or “awakened” to the negative ripple effects of our actions. We do not have the language to understand, much less have, internal struggles between pride and humility, for instance, or anger and compassion. We mainly know how to do good, not how to be good.

Our current moral vocabulary has real and severe gaps, but I don’t think the answer is to jettison and replace it with a more ancient vocabulary. There is a reason why we have shrunk away from using an internal lens to understand what is good; we increasingly believe that there is nothing that is purely internal, and that everything internal is in relation to the external. We see ourselves as caught up in an interdependent system in which we are all tightly bound together. In such a system, any action could have a myriad of unintended consequences, and so we are hyper-sensitive to how or what we buy, say, do (or don’t buy, don’t say, don’t do) affects others. We believe that we tread on others less out of sin and more out of ignorance. (The troubled history of international development and aid is just another example of the horrors of what can happen when you simply try to “will good,” without a deep understanding of the context in which you are operating.)

Yes, we neglect being over doing good, but we realize that you can’t just be good in a vacuum, without knowing what you are really doing as well. From our purview, we can see how it is entirely plausible to have a church-going policeman who is trying to be a good father and be less prideful, but who makes racist judgments in deciding whom to stop-and-frisk because of how he grew up and the pressure from his unit to hit his numbers. Brooks might see a man who is trying to work on his character, whereas we see someone who is an agent of various systemic forces. Brooks sees the isolated tree, whereas we see the ecosystem that has birthed the tree. The truth is that we sometimes miss the trees for the ecosystem. But the only way to elevate our vocabulary is not by pooh-poohing how our “narcissistic” generation “lacks morals,” as Brooks seems to take pleasure in doing, but by recognizing and acknowledging the moral conversations that do exist and the worldview behind them.  

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.