Tuesday, June 4, 2013

2013 David Brooks vs 2011 David Brooks

David Brooks' column today opens:
Dylan Matthews had a fascinating piece about a young man named Jason Trigg in The Washington Post on Sunday. Trigg is a 25-year-old computer science graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has hit upon what he thinks is the way he can do maximum good for the world. He goes to work each day at a high-frequency trading hedge fund. But, instead of spending his ample salary, he lives the life of a graduate student and gives a large chunk of his money away.

Trigg has seized upon the statistic that a $2,500 donation can prevent one death from malaria, and he figures that, over the course of a lucrative Wall Street career, he can save many lives. He was motivated to think this way by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.

From the article, Trigg seems like an earnest, morally serious man, who, if he lives out his plan, could indeed help save many lives. But if you are thinking of following his example, I would really urge caution.
Now, as a matter of fact, I have no beef with that. If you want to follow Trigg's path, you should proceed with caution. As Brooks points out, it's probably hard to go through with the decision to donate half your income, and it probably does become harder over time, as you become acculturated. (On the other hand, none of the people Matthews profiled are actually hardcore trader types - they're quants or startup folks or analysts, which probably makes sense both dispositionally and strategically [since the folks involved are aware of the acculturation concern and don't want to burn out].)

Brooks has two other arguments against Trigg's decision. I was going to paraphrase but it's probably better to let him use his own words:
Second, I would be wary of inverting the natural order of affections. If you see the world on a strictly intellectual level, then a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child. But not many people actually think this way. Not many people value abstract life perceived as a statistic as much as the actual child being fed, hugged, nurtured and played with.

If you choose a profession that doesn’t arouse your everyday passion for the sake of serving instead some abstract faraway good, you might end up as a person who values the far over the near. You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around. You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far — rationality — and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around — affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence. Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god.
Nothing in Matthews' article entails these conclusions, and I don't see any reason to believe that the people profiled in the article have in any way given up on attaching particular personal weight to the needs and desires of their loved ones. Brooks is mistaken to claim that it's rationality that drives that widening circle of care, rather than empathy, better understood. Larissa Macfarquhar has written movingly about utilitarian philosophers bursting into tears in her presence during abstract discussions of suffering. In one of these stories, she hits the nail on the head:
It turned out that what had made him cry was the idea of suffering. We had been talking about suffering in the abstract. I found that very striking. Now, I don’t think any professional philosopher is going to make this mistake, but nonprofessionals [**cough cough Brooks**] might think that utilitarianism, for instance (Parfit is a utilitarian), or certain other philosophical ways of think about morality, are quite unemotional, quite calculating, quite cold; and so because as I am writing mostly for nonphilosophers, it seemed like a good corrective to know that for someone like Parfit these issues are extremely emotional, even in the abstract.
So I think Brooks is substantially wrong about how the people who actually live this lifestyle approach it: they do feel the emotion of it, just for a far larger group of people than he's able to.

But even if Brooks is right so far, he hasn't yet really explained what's supposed to be so bad about taking this supposedly cold, rational approach.

That's the third argument:
Third, and most important, I would worry about turning yourself into a means rather than an end. If you go to Wall Street mostly to make money for charity, you may turn yourself into a machine for the redistribution of wealth. You may turn yourself into a fiscal policy.

But a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself. When we evaluate our friends, we don’t just measure the consequences of their lives. We measure who they intrinsically are. We don’t merely want to know if they have done good. We want to know if they are good.

That’s why when most people pick a vocation, they don’t only want one that will be externally useful. They want one that they will enjoy, and that will make them a better person. They want to find that place, as the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

If you are smart, hard-working, careful and lucky you might even be able to find a job that is both productive and internally ennobling. Taking a job just to make money, on the other hand, is probably going to be corrosive, even if you use the money for charity rather than sports cars....

Making yourself is different than producing a product or an external outcome, requiring different logic and different means. I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously. If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.
The most jarring thing for me about this argument was how it contrasted with a previous column of Brooks' that I remembered quite well. Almost exactly two years ago, as I was getting ready to graduate from college, Brooks wrote an outstanding column on this very issue:
If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front....

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. As Atul Gawande mentioned during his countercultural address last week at Harvard Medical School, being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.

Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.
I think most people, Brooks included, have probably never talked to someone like Trigg or Jeff Kauffman or Julia Wise. When you see their arguments written, without much elaboration, it's all too easy to write them off as rationalist cranks, perhaps lacking the full depth of humanity that you and your loved ones obviously have. But what an insensitive and ungenerous reaction. Talking to them, or hearing Larissa Macfarquhar talk about them, it's clear that they lead exactly the kind of life that Brooks accurately saw fit to praise in his 2011 column: a life of moral seriousness, driven by a genuine altruistic concern for others, as well as all the prosaic obligations to friends, family, and colleagues that structure all of our everyday lives.

Contra 2013 Brooks' straw man, these people have not taken jobs they despise with people they hate in places they don't want to live. They live the generally healthy, happy, comfortable lives of urban young professionals, and to the extent I've discussed it with them, work on relatively interesting problems with extremely talented colleagues. Once they've reached a level of material well-being themselves, they've chosen to try to optimize their contributions to the wellbeing of others rather than to fully, exhaustively, pursue their own self-regarding passions. Their path is not the right one for everyone, and they'll often be the first to tell you that, but it is also a path that altruistic young people in the position to do so should seriously consider.

Even if Brooks were right and the people who Matthews profiled are, horror of horrors, treating themselves as means to the ends of others, what of it? Isn't it much better for the world, and for those who are least well off in it? Why should we concede to 2013 Brooks' demand that we ally ourselves with the privileged potential Wall Street financiers who may forego some modicum of personal flourishing rather than with the many more Against Malaria Foundation beneficiaries who will live far longer and substantially better lives as a result of being protected from malaria? 2011 Brooks saw the wisdom of losing yourself in a cause, and it's sad that the mere specter of money leaves 2013 Brooks so cold.

Full disclosure: Dylan Matthews' column features GiveWell, my employer, prominently.


  1. It seems a bit rich that Brooks would imagine he is not a means to the ends of others in his own professional life or that Trigg, by virtue of being very generous to people he does not know with his professional life, cannot be very generous (in non-financial ways) to people he knows in his personal life.

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