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The Road to Character
David Brooks
read on December 1, 2015

David Brook's The Road to Character got a lot of attention this year, ultimately landing on Gate's best-of-2015 list. Before that, Emily told me I had to read it. The uninspired cover made that a tough proposition, I don't really remember why I agreed.

It was good, but in the way that my mom, or most peoples moms, would think it was good. I found Brook's conservatism coming through, in that all of his examples of good character seemed to be good in a very traditional, 1950's-feeling kind of way. Self-discipline and self-restraint were reoccurring themes, and I felt like spirituality came into the conversation quite a bit too often. I think part of my trouble with it is that it's become very difficult for me to think about character and motivation the way he does, seemingly from the perspective of an imperfect human struggling with a spiritual decision: hedonistic sinning vs restraint and service to others in the name of god. A typical passage:

Sin is not some demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency to fuck things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher.

I can't get on board with that. To me this is such a missed opportunity. We don't favor the short term because of sin, we favor the short term for relatively established genetic, evolutionary preferences that perform well under natural selection. There's a very interesting discussion there about how and why we do that, what the implications for us are today, and how best to subvert that legitimate desire for the greater welfare of the group. We should be studying human nature on it's own terms. I'm not saying every book needs to be a biology book - but by having the premise be the exact opposite, I feel like something is lost.

That complaint aside, as philosophy I generally found everything here very much worth reading and considering, and some of it very inspiring. A few of my highlights:

This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buccaneer put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?”

 

It is important to point out how much the sense of vocation is at odds with the prevailing contemporary logic. A vocation is not about fulfilling your desires or wants, the way modern economists expect us to do. A vocation is not about the pursuit of happiness, if by “happiness” you mean being in a good mood, having pleasant experiences, or avoiding struggle and pain.

 

Today, teachers tend to look for their students’ intellectual strengths, so they can cultivate them. But a century ago, professors tended to look for their students’ moral weaknesses, so they could correct them.

 

Many people today have deep moral and altruistic yearnings, but, lacking a moral vocabulary, they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I have impact? Or, worst of all: How can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I?

Author Bio:

David Brooks's column on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times started in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer." He is the author of "Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There" and “On Paradise Drive : How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” both published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Brooks joined The Weekly Standard at its inception in September 1995, having worked at The Wall Street Journal for the previous nine years. His last post at the Journal was as op-ed editor. Prior to that, he was posted in Brussels, covering Russia, the Middle East, South Africa and European affairs. His first post at the Journal was as editor of the book review section, and he filled in for five months as the Journal's movie critic. Mr. Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983, and worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau, a wire service owned jointly by the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times. He is also a frequent analyst on NPR’s "All Things Considered" and the "Diane Rehm Show." His articles have appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, the Washington Post, the TLS, Commentary, The Public Interest and many other magazines. He is editor of the anthology "Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing" (Vintage Books).