Moralism and Sustainability

William H. Young

David Brooks’ important new book The Social Animal might incorrectly be seen to validate the kind of thinking underlying the sustainability ideology now dominant on college campuses and among our college-educated elites. Brooks summarizes how brain research—aggregated by evolutionary psychology—is showing that most judgments and decisions are made within the unconscious mind based on emotion and intuition rather than consciousness. Brooks argues that we are not rationalists, in which conscious reason and logic—abstract thinking—control our decisions, the view of the French Enlightenment. Rather, we are largely social, sentimental creatures, he writes, taking the view of the British Enlightenment.

The American Founders learned from the British, particularly the Scottish, Enlightenment about moral philosophy or ethics, the study of standards of conduct and moral judgment. They grasped that man’s common human nature has an innate moral sense, the faculty by which he or she distinguishes between right and wrong or good and bad, and that the deliverances of this faculty are feelings or sentiments that can lead to virtue. The moral sense or intuition formed the basis for Scottish moral philosophy and also for Adam Smith’s political economy of capitalism.

One of the members of the Scottish Enlightenment who most influenced our founders was David Hume, whose inductive science of human nature has long been considered the precursor to contemporary cognitive science. Evolutionary psychology is now proving his views to be correct. Hume saw the imagination as the active mental power that fashions a specifically human world within nature. He recognized that the imagination enables man to create connections between the perceived elements of both the physical and the moral world, ranging from particular events and things to the cosmos and the system of humanity. But Hume also held that man’s actions “were grounded in psychological realities, and hence were not to be disavowed lightly in the name of any specious transcendental value system, abstract metaphysics or utopian visions.”

What is the contemporary mode of thinking of many of America’s academic and upper-middle-class elites? They consider that their views are the products of uniquely creative intelligence, intellect, and moral imagination—and are thus morally superior—providing the grounds for instruction of the uninitiated. The elite moral imagination reflects the postmodern social construction of reality (or illusion), dismissing the need for evidence. The sustainability ideology illustrates the results of such thinking. Sustainability also includes apocalyptic environmentalism, an egalitarian utopian vision, and a Gnostic-like transcendental value system—sustainable development. Edmund Burke called this the use of the “idyllic” imagination rather than the moral imagination.

Bioethicist Dr. Margaret N. Maxey has called this kind of thinking moralism: “a pathology that results from the persistent failure to recognize and be responsible for the harmful social consequences of private moral judgments, however well-intentioned they may be.” For matters of public policy, such as the adoption of sustainability as a national social, economic, and environmental ethos, moralism should not be the basis for decision making. Reason and logic—critical thought—not just personal or collective moral intuition should also be essential elements of such a societal judgment.

But beginning with the counterculture of the 1960s, postmodern academic thinking—other than that applied in technical professions such as natural science, medicine, engineering, finance, accounting—came to dismiss the “rationalistic” mentality associated with scientific mechanism and materialism, what Theodore Roszak derided as “objective consciousness.” Yet academia and its elite progeny still consider themselves qualified to dictate profound conclusions to America that demand rational and objective thinking. The sustainability ideology—reflecting empathy for nature over man—would summarily dismiss the concept of economic growth under regulated capitalism that provided the material well-being of the common man for the first time in human history.

Applications of policies and technologies to address global climate change, their economic consequences, and their effects on people require understanding and use of mathematics and assessment of risk, for which, as Brooks notes, the unconscious is unequipped. And as William James advised, intuition and logic must operate in partnership; the challenge of the rational mind is to sort and organize the interchange between the two. Moreover, the mind must use quality information and methods stored in memory as well as the innate moral sense to properly develop and apply both reason and the moral imagination. Are our academic and college-educated elites wholly capable of conducting such critical thinking in combination with their intuition?

As first revealed by A Nation at Risk (1983), over decades many elites as well as others in Generations X and Y have received mediocre educations based upon progressive social constructivism (social change rather than academic scholarship) and postmodern multicultural constructivism (learning from adolescent peer groups rather than adult didactic instruction)—and featuring collectivism over capitalism. Such elites lack the hard knowledge, experience, and vocabulary—as well as historical understanding—to fully inform their intuition, imagination, or reason. College and high school graduates, increasingly educated in popular culture, are weakest in reasoning skills such as the ability to infer knowledge that is not explicitly stated and to assess the validity of evidence or the logic of arguments. Many elites—even those who are college-educated—are semiliterate, innumerate, and lack the critical thinking skills necessary to overcome the prejudices of human nature (see Francis Bacon’s “idols”): availability biases, conspiracy theories, false beliefs, and moral obsessions and crusades often based on fantasy rather than imagination.


David Brooks need not be concerned that our academic and college-educated elites are unduly rationalistic. For matters of public policy, such as the efficacy of the sustainability ideology, many of those elites—in other than their technical professions—would seem largely unprepared to draw responsible rather than moralistic conclusions. Should not the leadership of our universities address that issue before advocating sustainability as the virtuous way-of-the-future for America? Examination of the proper uses of the moral imagination and critical thought would appear to be fertile ground for the kind of intellectual exploration and instruction that the university was originally constituted to carry out.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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