A Modern Moralist

This journal spends a lot of time discussing ethics. But morality is more than just a form of study. It is behavior that allows us to enjoy the “good life,” as  Cicero understood it. It is true that theory can help us to better understand the “why” of our choices and the end goal of our actions. That said, any system is useless if it is not lived.

I give David Brooks as an example, and his new book The Road to Character. I have not read it yet, but I gather from an interview that the New York Times journalist approaches the post-modern ethical dilemma from a very sensible viewpoint. Brooks says his book can be read by people of any faith, or no faith, yet he speaks in a way that is refreshingly honest:

A friend of mine who is an editor at another publishing house… called me and said, you know, I love the way you talk about your book, but I wouldn’t use the word “sin” – it’s just such a downer, so you should use the word “insensitive.” I of course think that “insensitive” is very paltry substitute for the word “sin,” so there has been some pushback on that. And, there’s some hostility towards religion in general. The book is not super religious, but it does have religious characters, and certainly religious words and religious context.

Brooks is critical of the “big me” narcissism of recent decades that has been encouraged by technology and social media. I agree with him that things like Facebook did not “create” these moral failings, but there is no doubt that

…social media damages our attention span. I’ve certainly noticed that in myself where I have trouble reading for long periods of time without checking my phone. So I do think that’s probably the most harmful thing that’s happened to us. Moral reflection takes stillness.

I appreciate his hat-tip to a favorite writer: “I think you learn from Samuel Johnson the virtue of reading and how just having a settled philosophy of life is important in having and living a life of character.” I would add that a “settled philosophy” is both a starting point and a goal. Our outlook deepens and matures if we are sincere and never self-satisfied.

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