Sunday, May 27, 2012

David Brooks on our patch for morality

David Brooks has a good essay on our choice of careers and our broken moral compass.


... community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person. 
Let’s put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation. 
People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are. 
In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. 
So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests... 
Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

I believe that Brooks' strictures apply to socialism as well. Pope John Paul II spoke about the danger of statist morality-- the use of government coercion as a substitute for personal morality. The Lord's command is to love our neighbor, not to take money by force from some neighbors to give it to other neighbors and call it virtue. Support for or opposition to various redistributive programs is not intrinsically moral or immoral. The moral status of the programs is a matter of prudential judgement. Some programs help those in need. Some hurt those in need. Many programs do both.

The Gospel provides the questions (how can I best help?), not the answers. Our moral responsibility is to provide the answers-- and to act on them, with the Lord's guidance-- putting our talents to effective use.

But with the "death of God" in the West our transvaluation of values (Nietzche) has left us bereft of a moral vocabulary, and we have substituted a political vocabulary. We flounder, substituting service to ideology and to government coercion in place of love of God and neighbor.

It is a pitfall that Christians and non-Christians alike find difficult to skirt. We are constantly tempted to public ostentation as a patch for asthenic private virtue. But we must strive to share God's love, and eschew moral patches.

He was awfully hard on Pharisees.  


  1. Michael,

    Well, actually the Gospels provide answers as well as questions.

    There's Matthew 19:21 Jesus said until him, if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.


    Matthew 19:24. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

    Pretty clear and definite answers about social justice, eh?

  2. Yeah, as if Egnor has sold what he has and given it all to the poor! I bet he lives in a really nice house and drives a really nice car. How many Christians actually practice what Jesus preached?

  3. I love Christian advice from people who hate Christians.

    First, I drive a Toyota SUV with 105,000 miles on it. My wife drives a Honda minivan with 90,000 miles. My house is nice, but nothing more than that. I work for a living, pay enormous taxes, and can't retire for at least another 10 years (I've got kids in college).

    I am not rich, by any means.

    The Matthew verses do not condemn wealth. 19:21 refers to "perfect" for one young rich man, not to ordinary Christian good behavior. The 19:24 probably refers to one of the Jerusalem gates, that was called "the eye of the needle" because it was so narrow. For a camel to pass through, all of its burden had to be removed.

    Jesus had remarkable affection for Nicodemus (very wealthy) and Joseph of Arimathea (very wealthy). He obviously loved the poor and middle class as well.

    He was no socialist. His revolution was a revolution of the heart.

    Socialism is a perversion of Christianity, a Christian heresy, actually.

  4. Egnor is so stooopid, he actually has fallen for the completely bogus story that "the eye of the needle" refers to a Jerusalem gate. No serious Biblical scholar has claimed that for decades.

    How can Christians be so irresolutely ignorant about their own holy book?

    As for taxes, you probably pay less taxes than comparable people in almost any civilized country, so spare us the moaning about how "enormous" your taxes are.

    Conservatism is just one excuse after another for greed.


  6. Michael,

    I don't actually hate Christians. I just hate the brands of Christianity that encourage some people to think that if someone, somewhere, somewhen claims that something was implied in the Bible, then it trumps all rational thought forever.

    The Bible has been used to justify an enormous number of positions. Liberation theology. Prosperity theology. Poverty as a worthy goal. Let alone slavery and the oppression of women.

    Joseph of Aramathaea and Nicodemus were mentioned in only a few places in the Bible and manages to allow Michael to claim that Jesus had a fondness for them, and hence wealth is OK.

    Michael claims he pays enormous taxes. The top marginal tax rate is 35%, not particularly high on developed world standards. I'd imagine he earns around $300,000 per year. According to the Wikipedia, the overall tax for someone on this income is around 20%, although that assumes that the person is getting around 20% of income from interest, dividends and capital gains (all taxed more lightly), so Michael is probably paying a slightly higher percentage.

    Someone who is getting an income over $100 million per year (and there are a few) gets most of his income from interest, dividends and capital gains and pays around 16%.

    I personally don't know how much I pay in tax. My income is around $100,000 per year, and I consider myself rich beyond all measure. I could easily pay more tax. I donate around $8,000 each year to charity, and don't notice it.

    Michael with his liking for supernatural explanations is more of a proponent of materialism and Scientism than I am. I know that science is currently incapable of giving the answers we want or need, because its knowledge in certain areas is incomplete.

    Michael persists in insisting that malaria could have been eradicated in the '60s, but because of Rachel Carson's book 'Silent Spring', it wasn't, and the technological fix of DDT was banned (it wasn't). Michael ignores the problems of malarial drug resistance and mosquito insecticide resistance. Malaria eradication is extremely difficult compared to smallpox or polio eradication, both with effective vaccines.

    Which leads me to mention that polio still hasn't been eradicated. It's still endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, waiting to erupt into currently polio free countries if vigilance falters. Polio could be eradicated at a cost of just $1 billion dollars, saving ongoing costs of at least $20 billion per year, in continuing immunisation costs, which could then diverted into other health problems. But the will is absent. And there's resistance to eradication in the affected countries for often religious or irrational reasons.

  7. Throughout life people will make you mad, disrespect you and treat you bad. Let God deal with the things they do, cause hate in your heart will consume you too.