Jan 07, 2015

The problem with meaning

I like David Brooks. I really do. I have fond memories of watching PBS Newshour with my parents and being bored out of my mind as Brooks debated that jowly man whose name I can't remember (Shields! Shields & Brooks, google brings it rocketing back).

I occasionally read Brooks in the Times. His column this week has got me all in a huff. It opens promisingly enough, with an analysis of an inspirational graduation speech. But it soon goes off the rails.

Brooks has a problem with how we use the word "meaning." He considers two current usages of the word:

  • "The first thing we mean is that life should be about more than material success."
  • "Second, a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life ... In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self."

I basically agree with this characterization.

I don't agree what follows:

Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity...

Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do...

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Taken on its own ground, this argument is fairly convincing. Pieces of it resonate with me. But when I try to apply it to my life, I get stuck. And then very frustrated.

Brooks is stuck in some secular-objectivist netherworld, caught between the cushy relativism he cries out against and the rigid rule systems he hearkens towards. Yes, I concur – anything-goes relativism is unsatisfying and shallow. But it is accepting. It's hazy tolerance enables the peaceful coexistence of a universe of crazy worldviews.

Objective rule systems are not as forgiving. Things are either right, wrong, or devoid of moral content. There is no yielding middle, where contrary positions can quietly drift past each other. This is the price paid when objective morality is adopted – other people can be wrong (actually wrong, not just wrong in your opinion), and something must be done about them. It is difficult to live with immorality, difficult to live around sin.

This is what is so frustrating about Brooks: he lays down a lucid critique of one side without acknowledging the difficulties of the other. He points out the need for an objective system, without writing one word about how to implement one. And implementation is the interesting question: how do we live a good life in the current world? How do we balance the need to sincerely believe in systems we endorse with the need to coexist with different others? That is the meat of the matter.

Pointing out the insufficiencies of the status quo is easy and unfulfilling. It bothers me that columns like this are published in the New York Times, while good work finds purchase only in quiet places. Everyone should be concerned with this question. Big-name writers should push further than they do.

But now I am slipping into a series of normative claims, and nobody wants that.

Brooks does have a move here – he could use this column as a platform to reach towards an objective system. If over the next weeks, his columns push closer towards the objective morality he endorses, and explore how to live out this morality in the world, then I have no beef with this at all. That would, in fact, be an elegant approach: a man's philosophy laid out in print over months, to be dissected in the comments all along the way.

But I'm skeptical of that happening. It seems more likely that this column will float by as a piece of misguided moralizing, forgotten in the flow of current events and editorial pressure. And if that is the case, I'm sad that it was able to be published in the first place.

[rereads: 2, edits: blockquote formatting, "that" –> "implementation", word cuts, added "quietly", "this" –> "that", small formatting tweaks]