Do not be fooled by the title of David Brooks’s latest book, The Social Animal. (Random House). What sounds like a sociology text book is really “the happiest story you’ve ever read… about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives.” This is a good story because it is about happiness, which means it is about everything and relevant to everyone. In particular, it is a story about the lives of Erica and Harold, about their early childhood and schooling, their becoming an above average yuppie couple, their careers and personal ups and downs, their political involvements, Erica’s remarkably boring one-night stand, and ending with Harold’s uneventful death. It is, as you might have guessed, a good story not because it has page-turning suspense, but because it is an insightful and sometimes funny story about a moral theory and how this theory is confirmed by human physiology. It is a good story in much the same way that stories written by Rousseau and Kierkegaard were good stories, because they characterized complex ideas so that we have a better understanding of their meaning and relevance.
At the heart of this story is a complex and ongoing philosophical argument about whether the human self is essentially autonomous or social. Brooks thinks that recent studies of the relationship between the human brain and the mind indicate that the self cannot be reduced, as contemporary neuroscience wants to reduce it, to the physical/animal self. If we are aggregates—body and soul—then our happiness will be a matter of the integrity of both body and soul and of our social harmony with other selves.
Through the development of plot and characters, Brooks essentially narrates a story of the moral theory articulated by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981), that the French Enlightenment’s notion of rationality has failed and that this failure is evident in its inability to speak about being human and being happy. The cure is a return to the teachings of Aristotle in which human happiness depends on the development of moral habits. Brooks weaves experiences of the Enlightenment’s failure into his story and then adds his own audacious interpretation of physiological data from neuroscience to corroborate his claims against autonomy and in favor of the social self. Because Brooks tells a good story, readers without extensive philosophical or scientific training can understand how and why the strange brew of French Enlightenment social and political theory mixed with Kantian autonomy brings about the unhappiness of fragmented human relationships. By seeing the cause of unhappiness, we can better imagine alternative claims about being human and being happy.
Harold and Erica are an über-successful yuppie couple who discover that their happiness has less to do with their yuppie-ness and more to do with their couple-ness. Because they came of age in a thoroughly modern milieu, accepting the idea that happiness can be found in common, bourgeois, life-long marital union requires a radical change to their plausibility structures. This means a reorientation of the autonomous self’s attitude toward sociality. The process begins with Harold’s mother Julie, as she struggles with little Harold’s disruptive lack of concentration. Though worried that she might spoil autonomous Harold’s “innocence and creativity,” she nevertheless concludes that Harold’s cure requires conformity to schedules and assignments. Brooks notes, “Julia didn’t really get the sense that the Unsupervised Harold, the non-homework Harold, the uncontrolled Harold was really free. This Harold, which some philosophers celebrate as the epitome of innocence and delight, was really a prisoner of his impulses. Freedom without structure is its own slavery.” Autonomous Harold wished to be left alone, but on his own, he would not and could not overcome the behavioral problems that threatened the development of his human possibilities.
This counter-cultural notion of freedom is, as Brooks notes elsewhere, routinely contradicted by current boilerplate commencement addresses. Graduation day speakers routinely claim that happiness comes to those who dare to do their own thing, follow their own passions, chart their own courses, march to the beat of their own drums, and make their dreams reality. Imbibing the poison of individual expressionism, autonomous selves view lifelong commitments to spouse, children, communities, and calling as the opposite of freedom.
Second thoughts about the corrosive impact of the ethic of autonomy have been around for some time. For example, in 1958, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe famously observed in her essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” that autonomy in the hands of the sufficiently clever is a useful disguise for selfishness. In 1988, Allan Bloom criticized the image of the autonomous self in The Closing of the American Mind, a book that made him rather unpopular in academic circles. C. S. Lewis claimed that the autonomous self was a quantifying and calculating thinker who ignored the human imagination, religious faith, intuition, and passion. To follow autonomy consistently would lead not to the self’s happiness but to its abolition.
This contrast of self-images—autonomy versus the social animal— is played out nowhere so clearly as on the stage of economics. The economics of the autonomous self produces a character who “is smooth, brilliant, calm… He surveys the world with a series of uncannily accurate models in his head, anticipating what will come next… He seeks to maximize his utility…. His relationships are all contingent, contractual, and ephemeral. If one relationship is not helping him maximize his utility, then he trades up to another. He has perfect self-control and can restrain impulses that may prevent him from competing.” The classical economist devises “rigorous mathematical models” with the assumption that the models make economics “a hard, rigorous, and tough-minded field like physics.”
In contrast, the concept of the self of the British Enlightenment finds clear expression when Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is read in tandem with his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For Smith, economics is not the quasi-scientific/mathematical quantification of human behavior aimed to construct schemes for large-scale social and political restructuring; economics is rather the more modest discipline of perception and interpretation of the self’s incalculable moral sentiments as they are concretized in economic choices and commitments. In these choices we see how a self, though drawn to be selfish, is also naturally tilted toward a sociability that is manifested in “‘an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend.’”
Erica comes to see the practical difference these theoretical differences make when dealing with her boss’s empty bluster about his schemes to transform the company, revolutionize the landscape, tear up the playbook, and find the game-changer/blockbuster product, all while the company falls apart. When Erica tells Harold her frustration, he observes that Erica’s boss is a “dumbed-down” child “of the French Enlightenment who imagines himself to be a genius—he has the IQ to qualify the claim—and thus feels the call to devise top-down organizational schemes that impose his will on the chaos. And he believes in his genius until the day he is fired. In contrast, Harold discovers that the thinkers of the British Enlightenment generally thought that “individual reason is limited,” and so were leery of genius imposing its organizational will on others. Their better solution was to cultivate a culture by establishing connections that constitute commitments between people. When selves are socially connected rather than organizationally controlled, they prove more creative and effective in solving problems on multiple fronts, as if guided by a hidden hand.
This view of the social self is reflected in the mysterious and complex connection between the human mind and the brain. While studies of the mind/brain mystery have (yet) to lead scientists back to the Christian idea of the angel/animal composite self, they are making it increasingly difficult to reduce the self to physicalist terms. Brooks writes,
…each of us has unique neural networks, which are formed, reinforced, and constantly updated by the eclectic circumstances of our lives… The neural networks embody our experiences and in turn guide future action… A brain is the record of a life… the physical manifestation of your habits, personality, and predilections. You are the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head.
It is the sophistication of neuroscience’s study of the body that has led us back to the reality of the human soul. Nevertheless, neuroscientists generally remain physicalists who explain (away) things like the soul, consciousness, moral character, imagination, moral choice, sentiments, and religious belief as biological functions of the nervous system. Physicalists do not like what Brooks writes and so tell him to stop, which presumes he has a freedom that neuroscience denies.
In Commentary, Peter Wehner recently noted the comments of a PhD in neurology who first stated, “‘Brain science has spoken and the conclusion is inescapable: the concept of free will is a myth.’” But then he claimed, you can have “morality without free will” (“On Neuroscience, Free Will, and Morality,” 8 June 2011). Students learn in the first week of an ethics class that to think about morality means thinking about how the self is determined (form) and how the self is self-determined (freedom). Take away either form or freedom and morality is a meaningless term. This simultaneous denying and affirming of free will rather suggests that the data of neuroscience is mysteriously complex, making it impossible to distinguish the determined from the self-determined. This complexity does not release us from, but changes the way we now “think about policy, sociology, economic, and life in general.” It means that the self and the world are so complex and interrelated, that we dare not entrust ourselves to top down, utopian schemes. Our happiness has more to do with the cultivation of virtues, paying attention to one’s choices and habits as they affect the integrity of the self and harmony with others.
Erica discovers this truth in the aftermath of her one-night stand with “Mr. Make-Believe.” For an illusory moment, Erica became an autonomous self, exercising her rational choice to have sex with whomever she pleases. What she did not anticipate in her calculations was the experience of “self-hatred, shame and revulsion” that followed. It was not that Erica feared being caught by Harold or judged by God, but that she intuitively felt that adultery was a kind of treachery and that she had chosen against the realization of “the deepest potential of her own nature.” Erica felt treacherous because she betrayed the trust she had learned to value and depend upon. Trust depends on the integration of language and living. Where promises are freely made and kept, the “transaction costs” of our relationships are minimized, thus deepening social happiness. To betray the marital promise attacked her vision of social happiness at its core. So, in order to reclaim her social self-image and its happiness, Erica chose “to change her life, to find a church, to find some community group and a cause, and above all, to improve her marriage, to tether herself to a set of moral commitments.” Unlike an autonomous self, Erica did not feel tied down by commitment but rather understood the marital commitment as a tether to another by which together they would find the happiness of discovering the “deepest potential” of their social natures.
My Augustinian advice is to “Take and read.” This is a good story that I suspect may become an important book if it turns out that Brooks’s interpretation of the neuroscience data further confirms the wisdom of the philosophical turn toward character and virtue. I hope this book becomes important because, as Erica’s life illustrates, when we see ourselves as social animals, we see the value of certain kinds of institutions, such as the church, for our human happiness. In the logic of autonomy, participation in the church is implausible. If Brooks is right, and is recognized as right, this may all change, though I’m not holding my breath.
I take the passion of the critics who do not want this to be an important book as a sign that it just might become one. Gary Greenberg (The Nation, 6 June 2011) calls The Social Animal “the dumbest story ever told.... a lumpy hybrid.” Alan Wolfe (The New Republic, 2 March 2011) accuses Brooks of writing a book that uses science to “buttress a prior point of view.” Well, true. That is what every argument does, including Wolfe’s argument against Brooks. It is not giving buttressing reasons that bothers Wolfe, but Brooks’s Burkean point of view. So Wolfe hopes that Brooks is only a “skillful popularizer” whose importance will extend no further than an appearance with Oprah. PZ Meyers (Salon, 4 March 2011) says the book is “pseudo-science” that allows Brooks’s “shallow” readers “to pretend to have knowledge.” Meyers—a partial Augustinian—advises his readers to take up this book and then fling it “with great force across rooms everywhere.” And finally the philosopher Thomas Nagel says that Brooks’s story is superficial, not because Brooks wants to think about “the most effective means of shaping people,” but rather because Brooks is too empirical and does not make normative claims about “what our ends should be” (New York Times Sunday Book Review, 11 March 2011). This is a puzzling criticism of a book that is about happiness and so about the human ends that define human happiness. The point is, Brooks’s happiest story has made some serious thinkers rather unhappy which suggests he is to be taken seriously and suggests he might be right. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind enjoyed similar dismissive criticisms and became an important book. In thirty years or so, I hope the same will be said of The Social Animal.
David K. Weber is Lecturer in Theology at Valparaiso University.