When David Brooks spoke in Gaston Hall a week ago, he solidified his position as the leader of an unholy alliance as he discussed his book “The Social Animal.” He marshalled both religion and science for an unrelenting attack on the life, liberty and happiness of the individual. While the concept of man guiding his actions through reason as a sovereign being with his happiness as his highest purpose is by no means held in high esteem in our culture, it is rare to see it come under so brazen an assault.

Brooks’s main target in addressing the audience was self-esteem — or, as he terms it, “self-expansion.”

Whereas Brooks views self-effacement as the cure for pride, I believe self-esteem is the virtue of pride. It is a combination of two evaluations of oneself: self-worth and self-efficacy. Self-worth is the judgment that you are a worthy moral end and that you deserve happiness in life. Self-efficacy is the judgment that you can actually achieve the values that support your life.

Brooks needs no explicit reasons for his view that your life as an individual is an unworthy end. He can rely on the millennia of altruism and self-abnegation, preached by everyone from the Christians to the Communists to the new-age environmentalists. Selfish happiness is evil. They all say: Enjoy no luxuries which your neighbors don’t have already; cut back your frivolous consumption for the good of Mother Earth.

Maybe you find these arguments unconvincing. Maybe you recognize that the fundamental moral choice you make is between your own life and death, and that successful pursuit of your own life as your highest value is the only way to bring non-contradictory happiness. Brooks doesn’t need to rely on religion (or the secular equivalent). He also has the scientific evidence to prove to you that you don’t exist.

Skeptical? According to Brooks, your body might exist, but your mind — and your capacity for reasoned choice — is apparently a figment of your imagination. He brought the usual studies purporting to show that people’s choices are not self-determined. These he takes to have proven that we are not “masters of ourselves,” that we are ruled by unconscious outside forces and that free will is an illusion (Brooks does not state this last explicitly, but there is no such thing as a somewhat-free will.). In fact, even this is inaccurate: Brooks claims that there is no “you” which is controlled from outside; instead, you are composed of a multitude of selves that come and go at random.

The first implication of this is that you have no ability to reason whatsoever — he calls this being “epistemologically modest.” Reason depends on the ability to choose what evidence to integrate and how to form conclusions on the basis of the evidence. If your conclusions are determined by what you ate for breakfast, you obviously cannot trust them. This goes doubly if your breakfast only sometimes determines your conclusions, since you cannot tell the difference between a deliberate use of reason and a conclusion made for you by General Mills.

The second implication is that you have no ability to determine how to act based on your own judgment. Since reason is out, Brooks claims that you must act on the basis of tradition. Education is not intended to develop your reason, but rather to “socialize” you. For Brooks, you must define your life not by an attempt to live for your own happiness, but by the demands others make on it. However, this view of man is no argument for tradition and altruism. On his premises, one could claim that he feels that robbery is the right thing to do.

In reality, contra David Brooks, free will is a directly observed fact: Science can explain it, not disprove it. End of story.

The one legitimate problem that Brooks identifies is the current cultural obsession with encouraging baseless self-esteem. This pseudo-self-esteem rests on a failure to give reasons for your self-worth and self-efficacy. The solution is not the opposite error, humility, but to discover why you should feel pride.

Brooks’ ideology would destroy the certainty in your own goodness required for pride. His view of the individual is one without reason or self-esteem, one with no option but conformity to the collective. He hopes that you will take Brook’s “social animal” as the meaning of life. In his argument is the very face of evil, the anti-life, the anti-reason: You must reject it. For the sake of your own happiness, prove him wrong and live instead as Aristotle’s “rational animal.”

 

Daniel Kendrick is a freshman in the College.

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