Kingdom of Priests

In the New York Times this morning, the day before Passover, the usually thoughtful and humane columnist David Brooks invites us to re-enslave ourselves to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Not just Jews, either, but everybody. That’s the unstated message of his column in praise of emotion as the guiding force behind moral reason. Or what we take to be moral reason. Brooks brings forward the evidence of evolutionary psychology to show that emotion forms moral instinct, which our reason then comes along and validates while pretending to have originated it.

Brooks finds several “nice” things about frankly admitting that morality is and should be emotion-based:

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy…but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

The not so nice thing is that if everyone believed this, we would all be enslaved to our emotions — a dictator as arbitrary, often as cruel, as Pharaoh himself. Morality in this view is not objective; it’s the very definition of subjective. On what basis does a person under the moral guidance of evolutionary psychology say no to himself when his feelings call him to do things that “bookish,” “Talmudic” moral reasoning — from which David Brooks celebrates our liberation — would describe as wicked?

Contrast evolutionary with Biblical psychology. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik masterfully puts it: 

If we had been taken out of Egypt…without accepting [God’s] code, without surrendering to His authority, without reaching a covenant with Him, without obligating ourselves to surrender freedom in order to gain a higher form of freedom — then we would have been in bondage again…bondage to our fears, to our phobias, to nature, to society, to slogans. On Passover, we celebrate our freedom.

To free yourself from the domination of such forces, and chiefly from your own ego, is a primary goal of Biblical religion. Not easily achieved, of course, but that’s the aim.
There is a Pharaoh inside each of us. When the Jews left Egypt, they were accepting an objective Master, an Authority outside of themselves — namely God — in exchange for Pharaoh’s whimsical rule. That Pharaonic rule could be “nice” — like that of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph and sheltered Joseph’s family from the great famine in Canaan. Or it could be not so nice — like that of the new Pharaoh introduced at the beginning of Exodus: “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (1:8). It was the latter Pharaoh who “embittered” the lives of the Jews with “crushing harshness” and instituted a program of infanticide (1:14ff).
I’ve known David Brooks slightly over the years, and he and his lovely wife Jane always struck me as wonderful people. I would have no difficulty accepting that by nature, David is a much nicer person than I am by nature.
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t see the enormous peril in this line of moral reasoning, that has been gaining ground for the past 150 years. If we were all so nice at heart, there would be no danger in dispelling the rule of objective right and wrong. But we’re not. It’s deeply scary that ideas like this find defenders as capable and otherwise as perceptive as David Brooks.
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