David Brooks Doesn’t Understand Love (But Who Does?)

Deal W. Hudson
June 23, 2015

David Brooks offers an interesting, and mostly correct, a critique of the Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudato si‘, in his column, “Fracking and the Franciscans.” Brooks correctly points out:

“You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.”

He adds another important corrective from the encyclical: Pope Francis ignores the fact that environments in “many parts of the world . . . are getting cleaner.” Brooks argues that “the race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.”

David Brooks, New York Times columnist.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist.

But what Brooks gets wrong is just as important:

“Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony, and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.”

Brooks makes a fundamental error in contrasting love and compassion with self-interest. Self-interest, properly pursued, ordered by virtue, is part of love itself, the seeking of the good for oneself and the other, both belong to the common good.

The divorce between love and self-interest was an invention of Immanuel Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and created an enduring, and unnecessary, incompatibility between self-love (eros) and love for our neighbor (philia) and love for God (agape). The natural love for one’s own well-being is God-given, as in the reason and grace that enables that self-love to rise above itself to include others and the Creator himself.

If that sounds too theological, recall the “inalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and company would hardly have included such a notion if it was devoid of being guided by virtues such as love and compassion. The happiness the Founding Fathers had in mind was not that of Aristotle and Aquinas, but it was a happiness achieved by virtuous action, including one called “love.”

Prior to Kant, extreme self-interest was called many things — pride, envy, avarice, lust. Any of the Seven Deadly Sins are forms of excessive self-interest, but these sins were all perversions of properly ordered love; love of self, neighbor, and God.


Adam Smith himself did not treat “self-interest” as an economic principle that can be invoked independently of human morality. His Wealth of Nations (1776) should be read side by side with his earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to understand the importance Smith places education in the virtues for economic development.

Apart from the Founding Fathers and Adam Smith, Brooks ignores the Catholic tradition of moral theology that views the virtues as fundamental to the moral life. They are the “moral premise” of Catholic thinking.  When the Holy Father calls for “love and compassion,” he is not dismissing self-interest — the need of any individual to pursue life’s goods. Rather, the Pope is calling for self-interest to be ordered towards the common good through the practice of virtue.

This past spring Brooks published a book on the virtues, The Road to Character, which I have not read. Brooks’ reading of Laudato Si‘  makes me wonder if he paid much attention to the development of virtue theory from the Middle Ages to the Founders.

Kant, writing a generation after the Founders, seems to be a guiding influence in his thinking, judging from his comment on Laudato Si‘.

Author’s note: It occurs to me that Brooks may be accusing Pope Francis himself of making the mistake described above.  But the text of Laudato Si’ is squarely within the Catholic theological tradition of relating human desire via the natural and supernatural virtues to the common good and God. Anyone interested in pursuing the textual evidence for my argument can find it in my history of the idea of happiness — Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction; Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.


By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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