David Brooks’ recent New York Times column titled “The Moral Bucket List” could certainly be read as a sweet call for all of us to strive to become better people. What could be more admirable than his being transparent about his personal history of having been swept up in “building market resumes” and his new intention to build a “eulogy resume” instead? I admit I was initially seduced. I even borrowed his Dorothy Day quote for a Facebook post and felt appreciative of his knowledge about her history, which I had not known previously.
Now it is my turn to be transparent. I do not like David Brooks. My dislike is based primarily on the little I have seen of him on TV. I have read some of his columns, and while I have liked certain ideas he has held up, I have been uncomfortable with his positioning. I would characterize the positions as arrogant and superior, provocative and divisive, and highly self-serving. It seems to me these positions might actually constitute the bullet points of his market resume that have allowed him, in his words, “a decent level of career success.” Apparently his measure of “decent career success” includes living in a multi-million dollar home, having a regular space to write in one of the world’s most high-profile publications, and being a popular presence in national political and social commentary across various media platforms. You know, what the average person can expect to achieve if they are “decently successful” in their careers as policemen, teachers, mothers, and social workers, for instance.
Though it is a struggle, I am striving to separate my dislike of David Brooks, the person, from his connection to these positions that I believe contribute to massive suffering in the world. I would like to attempt to take up my preferred position of declining totalizing judgments about a person while maintaining a right to critique certain ways of being the person may be embodying. So, I apologize to David Brooks for disliking him as a person. I wish instead to critique those ways of being that he seems to have embodied, and that I have a history of embodying at times myself.
Let’s take up David’s question (and answers) about what it takes to build “inner character.” His first description of people who have cultivated “goodness” is that they do not care about themselves at all. While this is a lovely romantic notion, not caring about themselves does not fit with my experience. People who are deeply interested in other people seem keenly committed to a personal ethic of recognizing that each person has knowledge, history, and experiences that are as precious as their own. It is not that “good people” do not care about themselves. It is that they care about the dignity and well-being of others and do so by de-centering their selves. It is a relational sensitivity and purposeful act.
If David Brooks is interested in taking up this kind of relational sensitivity, he might engage in certain practices, like asking himself how he may be colluding with a cultural value system that privileges competitions for truth over relational ethics. And, he might become deeply troubled by how playing these truth games from a privileged position helps justify and obscure the negative effects on those who happen to be the “losers,” or do not even get a turn to play.
His list of qualities and commitments that constitute what it means to have moral character are ones that I share wholeheartedly. For example, he writes that people of moral character take up a position of “humility” in opposition to self-promotion. He explains that humility includes a self-awareness about how our “weaknesses” can affect other people. He raises up the lovely sentiment of focusing on self-growth rather than competition with others. He acknowledges that human’s relational interdependence is critical to our individual development, and how it is helpful to develop a personal philosophy around what we value. He describes the personal pleasure that can come when supporting the well-being of those you love is included in what you value. He describes the sense of purpose that can be so life-giving when we allow our work to be guided by an intention that is about something greater than our individual status, gain, or wealth.
However, there are two domains of “moral character” missing for me from Mr. Brooks’ list. They are a commitment to vulnerability and striving for congruence. Vulnerability for me includes the desire for discomfort. For instance, it might include my sharing particular stories from my lived experiences that are not particularly flattering of me and that expose me as a flawed person. Such stories would not just include my own thoughts about my behavior but the real effects my actions had on others. Equally important, vulnerability for me includes a desire to hear and learn how I have negatively affected someone else. It includes a willingness to accept the discomfort of hearing I have done something, however inadvertent, that has been a problem for someone else.
Striving for congruence means the ongoing recognition of the inevitable gaps between what I say I stand for and how I live my life. I know I can never achieve complete congruence, but constantly engaging with self-reflexivity on the principles I claim I value is a personal ethic I attempt to embody.
My commitment to vulnerability and striving for congruence have to do with what is most precious to me. I believe in recognizing each person’s inherent worth and how each person has been shaped by webs of cultural discourse, not innate drives, motivations, or personalities. The importance of this for me has to do with the suffering I have experienced through the discursive partnership of liberal humanism and positivism. I want to stop those ways of understanding from hurting others the way they have hurt me.
My commitment also has to do with how much I desire intimacy, or the mutual commitment to care equally about our different ways of understanding.
Vulnerability and congruence are missing for me in David Brooks’ desire to move closer to being a person of moral character. In the end, his call for building moral character still takes place in the “marketplace.” It positions him as failing to achieve moral goodness primarily in relation to the likes of Dorothy Day and Dwight Eisenhower. It appears to me that he still takes up the position that he exposes in his column: “A pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter than I am.” And, I would add, "appear smarter than his reader."
In his Moral Bucket List column, Mr. Brooks is getting paid to appear smarter on the subject of moral character. And in my opinion, opinions are best offered in the subjunctive tense. To that end, I want to emphasize that what I have written in this response is just my sense of what moral character is for me at this moment, and I am clear that I can’t be certain what it might be for you, the reader. I would be interested to know if we had a chance to meet.
If Mr. Brooks wants to take a step into the journey of building inner moral character, maybe from now on he would write all his columns and talk on all his shows using only the subjunctive tense. He might link his values to his personal lived experiences and vulnerabilities, like his recent divorce, for example. In doing so, he might help close the gap between what he holds up as important and how he lives his life. I invite you to let me know how you think I could close that gap in my life as well, since I can’t see myself through your eyes and I would value knowing your perspective, even if it might involve some discomfort on my part.