On Penn State and David Brooks: The Case for Social Ethics
July 13, 2012 5 Comments
My progressive friends are quite upset about the most recent op-ed by David Brooks. The piece is, um, provocative to say the least. Take this quote for example: “[T]oday’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess.” With quotes like that it’s no wonder folks have responded with such fervent disdain for Brooks’s message.
The argument of the article goes something like this: While the US has mostly replaced its “old boys network” of financial, political, and social leadership with one of a meritocracy (a debatable point, for sure), this has not actually made the US a better place to live. He rhetorically asks if Wall Street or DC is working any better than they did 60 years ago. His answer? “The system is more just (meaning not excluding people based on race/gender/religion/etc), but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.”
Why does he think this is the case? Contrary to Christopher Hayes, whose book inspired Brooks’s post and thinks it’s because our meritocratic society fosters cut-throat competition that encourages those who get to the top to become corrupt to stay at the top, Brooks thinks it’s because these are people who weren’t raised being told they were a part of the noble and virtuous ruling elite. Rather, they had to scratch and claw their way to the top with no one to show them the way. They worked smarter, harder, and longer than everyone else, and once they reached elite status they refused to accept the label. Rather, they choose to see themselves as “countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else.”
What is missing from our business, university, and government leaders, then, are the virtues of acknowledged privilege. More specifically, “The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations.” We don’t have any philosopher-kings; rather, we have an oligarchy of the talented and driven. Thus, “Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.”
Brooks concludes by saying, “The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.”
Now, the most common response I’ve seen, primarily on Twitter, is for folks to begin listing all of the moral failures of earlier generations led by America’s legendary WASPs. Slavery. Jim Crow. Oppression of women. Failure to act in a timely manner in WWII. The reign of the Robber Barons. Etc, etc, etc. However, I think this misses the point.
What Brooks is pointing to is not something new, and it’s not totally off-base. Like Alisdair MacIntyre, Brooks is pointing to a perceived, and not necessarily wrongly, moral fragmentation that has occurred in western societies. In plain terms, pluralistic societies don’t have a shared morality and, thus, can’t agree on “the good” such societies should strive for and encourage. Specifically for Brooks, this fragmentation has created a void in which there is no lasting gaze toward or concern for the future. Rather, our most talented are a diverse group of people who, having not been trained to “lead,” focus solely on their own advancement. Hayes says the problem is corruption; Brooks says the problem is short-sightedness.
Of course, this is not the whole story. Take the Penn State football scandal, for instance. What we see there has been painted, primarily (and mistakenly), as a series of grave individual moral failures. (And it sure seems to have come out of a well-established “old boys network” of WASPy looking men!) Paterno, most recently, has been highlighted for his lack of moral courage. Earlier, his defenders claimed it was more for ignorance. However, I think it’s tough to argue that either his lack of moral courage or ignorance grew out of either “corruption” or “short-sightedness.” Rather, it seems to me that it’s the natural reaction we should expect from someone groomed in the world of big-time college football (as well as most of the rest of American society).
See, the problem isn’t the increasing diversity of our social leadership nor a lack of a common morality. It’s not even, at least not primarily, a preponderance of “cowardly” instead of courageous individuals. (And, in the case of Penn State, it wasn’t a lack of concern for the maintenance of an institution. In fact, that was a driving concern; namely, the money-making institution of Penn State football.) Rather, the problem across many of our social institutions is that they have one, and only one, common morality: the morality of the market.
And what is the logic of the morality of the market? The moral logic of the market declares that profit is the highest social good. Profit justifies corruption. Profit justifies short-sightedness. And profit justifies looking the other way from or actively covering up the systematic rape of children.
Contra Brooks, the problem isn’t a lack of a shared morality. The problem is that only one morality dominates our society, even in instances where it shouldn’t. Social theorists and philosophers, like Robert Bellah and Michael Walzer, have warned us that the danger in a capitalist society is that the logic of the market (profit, efficiency, utility, etc.) will overstep its bounds and dominate every sector of society.
And we see it happening every time a university board recommends cutting language studies to decrease costs. We see it every time a church judges its ministry by the number of worshippers on Sunday morning or the size of the offering. We see it every time a college sports coach recruits players they are sure won’t be able to graduate. We saw it when the financial industry tanked the global economy but no one was assigned blame because those who were supposed to get a profit got a profit. We see it everywhere.
The solution isn’t a reassertion of a homogeneous social leadership, and it’s not (only) the establishment of more laws to discourage corruption. Rather, the (beginning of the) solution is the reigning in of the logic of the market. Justice, not profit, must reign in politics. Love, not profit, must reign in familial life. Faithfulness, not profit, must reign in ecclesial life. Compassion, not profit, must reign in social relations. Truth, not profit, must reign in our public discourse. And I could go on. But as long as profit and self-interest (or efficiency or utility) continues to reign outside of the sphere of everyday market transactions our society will continue to have more Penn States, more financial meltdowns, and more political scandals.
It’s not (solely) about individuals; we should not be surprised at the actions of Penn State nor the bankers whose actions led to the recession. We, as a society, taught them to place profits over people. We are simply scapegoating those who acted as we told them they should.
It is the task of social ethics to teach us otherwise.