David Brooks uses Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich to comment on how the pendulum has swung too far with the change in moral climate. He writes, "Many of us are in Ivan Ilyich's position, recognizing that the social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. . . . The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture."
So, what's wrong with the current moral climate? He lists some overarching problems and focuses on a few areas of society. First, the overarching problems.
We have become "less morally articulate." We are more materialistic. More individualistic. Less empathetic.
We have become "a more competitive meritocracy." He writes:
You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world. That's meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement--doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.
What results is a culture of busyness where we fail to take the time to cultivate our moral and spiritual sides. I thought of Richard Rohr's writing while reading this section.
The meaning of the term character itself has changed, away from an embodiment of the traditional virtues to now "describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity."
Brooks does not think that social media has ruined us, as the damage was largely already done, but it has had "three effects on the moral ecology." First, "It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths." Second, "Social media allow a more self-referential information environment." And finally, it "encourages a broadcasting personality."
He spends a few pages on changes in parenting that he dislikes, but I thought those arguments were overwrought.
In the final post of this series on his book, we'll look at what he calls "the humble path to the beautiful life."