We Are What We Do

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David Brooks recently wrote a column about morality and service to others which struck a chord with me but not in a good way. Mr. Brooks had read about a discussion amongst Stanford students on the usefulness and morality of high finance and found himself disagreeing with the assumptions that underpinned their debate. I’ll link to his column below but the following excerpts, I think, sum up his point adequately.

“When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource-allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.”

“The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service is a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you’re doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates, then you must be a good person.”

“Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.”

My main problem with his conclusions regards his seeming dimissal of life experience, especially at productive tasks, as a good source of moral education. To me, what we do defines who we are far more than what we believe. Now, I am definitely not one to dismiss the need for philosophical and spiritual experiences. Productivity and money aren’t everything, far from it. However, material concerns should not be thought marginal. There is an unfortunate idea circulating that poverty is rooted in the moral failings of the poor rather than in the systemic approach to wealth creation. Economics has become too abstract and divorced from people’s day to day lives, especially the lives of the working class. Our most basic needs are a very large part of what defines morality.

A more minor if still important criticism of Mr. Brooks’ column is the reference to Bono, one that seems to scoff at the idea of him being an adequate role model. Bono may be over-idealized because of his celebrity, yet his record of work on global poverty issues is difficult to criticize. His life experience stemming from his work in many parts of the world and interactions with numerous cultures, in my opinion, far trump the insights to be gleaned from literature even at its best and most spiritual.

I believe actions are more powerful than words, and that thought is most useful in reflecting upon our experiences rather than invoking them. Whether business or charity, we find meaning in the fruits of our accomplishments.

The Service Patch by David Brooks — NYTimes.com

Copyright 2012 by Michael Marsters.
All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “We Are What We Do

  1. This is powerful, and something that I often feel and think:
    ‘There is an unfortunate idea circulating that poverty is rooted in the moral failings of the poor rather than in the systemic approach to wealth creation. Economics has become too abstract and divorced from people’s day to day lives, especially the lives of the working class. Our most basic needs are a very large part of what defines morality.’
    I’m so glad you directed me over here. Your prose writing is as excellent as your poetry. I will be back to read more asap.

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