Tuesday, May 30, 2006

David Brooks tending toward a humanistic naturalism

In the latest edition of the CFN newsletter, I congratulated NewYork Times columnist David Brooks for taking a causal view of children's capacity for self-control, compared with his anti-naturalistic take on the Columbine massacre (see "Brooks, Reconfigured"). Now Brooks has written "Of Love and Money" in which he looks at the big picture of human capital and social inequality, again from a causal perspective. That he feels concern about inequality and fairness is progress for a conservative, and that he's so interested in causes and admits that human capital is fully physical (based in brain capacities) is of course laudable from a naturalist's perspective.

Since his avowed goal is greater equality, and since he's basically a naturalist (at least in this piece), then the question becomes: what works best to address the causes of inequality? He recognizes that healthy brain development is one key factor, and that this requires stable relationships early in life. He thus asks: "How do we inculcate good brain functions across a wider swath of the 3-year-old population?" and "How does government provide millions of kids with the stable, loving structures they are not getting sufficiently at home?" Not surprisingly for a conservative, he plays down the role of government, and ends up with the rather banal observation that "Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults."

But having said this, the next question Brooks needs to address is what can help establish these relationships. Since loving relationships are primarily a matter of healthy, non-punitive families, schools and communities, the question then becomes how best to encourage the development of such families, schools and communities. Are strictly market-based solutions the best, or intentional, targeted, science-based policies (see "Causes of violence" below), or perhaps a mix of both? Once you start taking human welfare as a primary good, and then accept a fully causal, physical view of the person, then there's at least a chance that laissez-faire ideology might be questioned. This is to say that being a humanistic naturalist militates against thoughtlessly buying into unchecked free-marketeerism. I detect in Brooks signs of both humanism and naturalism, although he probably won't ever come out and say so, since that would alienate his conservative constituency.


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