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14 October 2023

David Brooks’ delusions of moral decline

How to Know a Person argues that public life no longer values honour and empathy – but the evidence is deeply flawed.

By Sophie McBain

When David Brooks, an American conservative commentator who writes mostly for liberal publications, surveys the political landscape he sees a country in moral crisis. Political divides are widening and rates of mental illness and loneliness have soared in the US, as they have in the UK. While he acknowledges this could be blamed on social media, rising inequality, declining religiosity and community participation, populism, bigotry and elite demagoguery, Brooks believes these trends are underpinned by a fundamental problem. Our interpersonal skills are not up to the challenge of living in a diverse, multicultural society, he argues, and we place too little value on cultivating social ability and good character.

His latest book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, is a self-help manual written with a sense of political purpose. Brooks bemoans that schools and parents no longer teach moral formation but instead focus narrowly on achievement. Morality has retreated from American public life, he argues. He searches Google Ngram Viewer, which charts how frequently words appear in books, and reports that over the 20th century the use of morality-related words plummeted: “bravery” was down 66 per cent, “gratitude” 49 per cent and “humbleness” 52 per cent.

My suspicions were raised. For a start, at my daughters’ primary school the students compete for nothing other than a weekly kindness medal, and there is so much emphasis on healthy relationships that I joke with fellow parents that soon our children will moan about how dysfunctional we millennials are. After all, we were never taught how to be a good friend, or when to take a “time out”. This is anecdotal, and American schools may be different, but it meant that out of curiosity I, too, searched Google Ngram, and noticed something strange.

The use of “bravery” indeed dipped during the 20th century, but it has soared since 2000 and is now used more frequently than at any point in the past 100 years. The same is true for “humbleness”. Usage of “gratitude” has risen considerably since the millennium. When I searched “kindness”, “humility” and “courage” I saw the same trend. “Empathy”, the proper subject of Brooks’ book, is a word coined only at the start of the 20th century, but its usage has risen exponentially since the Fifties, and has more than doubled since 2000. Surely Brooks would have spotted this, too; while he believes that today’s political ills are underpinned by the diminishing importance of morality to public and social life, his own evidence suggests something different. Moral language had fallen out of favour by the Nineties, a period of liberal consensus and complacency when many believed we were reaching the end of history and of boom-bust economics, but became popular once these illusions were shattered.

[See also: The bones that built Britain]

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I’m also not convinced that Google Ngram is a reliable way to take the moral temperature of a nation, but Brooks’ flawed use of statistics suggests either a strange oversight or motivated reasoning – looking only for evidence that supports his thesis and failing to notice anything that might not. This wasn’t the only instance where his evidence base seemed flimsy. He asks a friend in publishing which self-help books perform best and she replies that people are hungry for titles about healing, citing the popularity of Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal 2014 work on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score. But even a cursory browse of Amazon’s highest-selling self-help books complicates the picture (these currently include macho life-hacks from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jordan Peterson, and plenty about self-love, self-optimisation, power and leadership). It’s easy to make plausible-sounding generalisations about the causes of modern anomie and unhappiness; it is harder to back them up.

The same is true for Brooks’ generalisations about politics. He cites intriguing (and debatable) research by the American Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, that found that lonely people are seven times more likely than non-lonely people to enter politics, which he concludes means they are using politics to find their tribe and an “arena of moral action”. These lonely ideologues, he suggests, believe that “to be moral in the world, you don’t have to feed the hungry… you just have to feel properly enraged at the people you find contemptible”. This feels true of some supporters of Trump and other populists, but how many people actually believe this? Still, he continues that while “happy” societies produce the politics of distribution, which considers how resources should be distributed, “unhappy” societies produce a politics of recognition fuelled by resentment, in which people want to affirm their identity and status rather than address social ills.

The broader problem with Brooks’ narrative of decline is that for many Americans the country was never a particularly happy, or indeed kind, society. Notwithstanding its present dysfunctions, the recent story of American politics is also one of hard-won progress on civil liberties, driven by feminism, civil rights and gay rights movements that surely combined the politics of distribution with the politics of recognition. Where Brooks sees a “massive civilisational failure”, I see considerable but unfinished progress on creating a society in which your gender, sexuality, religion and race doesn’t determine your life chances. Where he observes moral decline, I mostly see the retreat of a well-mannered patrician gentility in which everyone knew their place, and the emergence of new moral codes.

But politics only forms a small part of this book, which is primarily a manual for sustaining friendships and having better conversations, and you don’t have to share Brooks’ politics to appreciate the value of forging stronger social connections. His first book, Bobos in Paradise (2000), was a prescient study of the new creative elite, but he says he’s no longer interested in standing apart from people and sizing them up. Instead he strives to be an “illuminator”, the kind of person who makes others feel seen and heard, and who helps them see the best in themselves; he thinks others should try this, too. Brooks can be amusing, as well as disarmingly self-deprecating and earnest. He describes himself as an emotionally aloof nerd whose life was changed during a surprisingly emotional on-stage panel discussion with, among others, the actress Anne Hathaway, where Brooks realised that his usual attitude of detachment was alienating him from others and his true self.

[See also: Jon Fosse and the art of tedium]

It’s true that his tips on connecting with others can sound as if he’s trying to explain the basic rules of human interaction to an alien. There is a passage on the importance of small talk: “When you’re first getting to know someone, you don’t want to peer into their souls right away. It’s best to look at something together. What do you think of the weather, Taylor Swift, gardening, or the TV series The Crown?” For those who want a slightly more in-depth conversation at a party, Brooks suggests a few opening lines, like a pick-up artist but for the socially inept: “Where did you grow up?” or “That’s a lovely name. How did your parents choose it?” – a suggestion that made me cringe with second-hand embarrassment. When you’re ready to go properly deep you might ask: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” or “If we meet a year from now what will we be celebrating?” This celebrity life-coach approach might work better at a DC power lunch than, say, a house party in Hackney. But Brooks also offers many thoughtful and useful suggestions,  including on how to communicate effectively across political chasms; here, he rightly argues that the onus is on the speaker who holds the greater power to create conditions for the respectful, equal exchange of ideas. 

For all my criticism, I agree with Brooks that most of us should try harder to be more empathetic, kind and open to others. I share his fundamental moral outlook, the belief that being a good person is less a matter of grand gestures than the quotidian, small-scale yet life-affirming work of being a better friend, neighbour or colleague. Like him, I recently lost a close friend to suicide, an experience that makes you strive to be a more effective source of support. I raced through the book, which is well-structured and engagingly written, and afterwards found myself making a greater effort in conversations. At the school gates, I swapped my formulaic how-are-yous for questions that invite a more genuine response, sometimes simply: “How’s your day been?” I became more alert to my bad habit of “topping” – when someone confides in you and you top it with a sob story of your own. I made tiny changes, things that friends would be unlikely to notice – and yet the difference was transformative.

How to Know a Person: the Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen
David Brooks
Random House, 320pp, £25

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts