Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why David Brooks is Wrong

If you'd asked me last year about David Brooks' column about weed, I would have defended it. Now I won't. Forget that the warnings Brooks sounds against marijuana are false, and forget the argument that Brooks can't consistently oppose weed but not alcohol. That's all true, but the thing most worth opposing is what comes at the end:
In healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.
First, I want to fight against what I'm tempted to say here. David Brooks isn't just making stuff up when he writes this. The "higher pleasures" are not, pace me, an invention of conservatives to make sure the rest of us have less fun; they're an important part of human life. There is a difference between the higher and lower parts of our nature—there's a difference between things like hiking, listening to Mozart and having kids on the one hand; and drunkenness, casual sex, smoky bars, and poker on the other. It takes a real lack of imagination not to see that. Pretending that it's just a matter of chocolate and vanilla ice cream will blind you to the real importance that the choice between celestial and earthly pleasures have in human beings' lives.

On the other hand, that doesn't count for much morally speaking. It's one thing to recognize a fundamental difference in the way that humans treat their pleasures. It's another to claim that we're better people if we're more into heavenly delight than earthy glee. What ever happened to treating each other well? Pleasure is something that happens in our innermost souls; luckily for all of us, though, we're really only accountable for the stuff we do to other people. High and low pleasures are like Japan and France: different countries, but citizens of one aren't inherently better because they live there. I've met a bunch of people who think they're on the right track because they study Greek and never say fuck or drink. Nuts.

File:Temptation of Christ.jpg
"And no wonder, for even Satan fashions himself into an angel of light." 

Sometimes, though, this way of looking at things runs strongly against our intuitions. How can it be that the higher pleasures aren't preferable to the lower? I have a hard time with this too sometimes, especially after walking through an alcohol- and condom-drenched college dorm. But then I remember: Bach's music, which is lovely to me, was even lovelier to the Nazis, who put it on at all their rallies. Gladiator matches were like artful bullfights: splendid and noble. Torquemada listened to exquisite polyphony in church, and his heart must have been often raised to the heavens by perfectly executed altarpieces. In other words, a lot of good people do filthy things and are no less good for it, and a lot of evil people do beautiful things without cleaning an ounce of moral grime from their hands. So there is a difference between the high and the low, but it doesn't mean much. And there's an awfully weak case to be made for the government steering us towards one over the other.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Am I alone in being at least as disturbed by Brooks's reasoning of "the government cultivating the right kind of citizen" with higher pleasures as I am by the implict moral judgement on people who like the "wrong kind of pleasures"(a category that includes a very large number of the best people I know)?