CCR Blog

David Brooks’ “The Service Patch” and The Question of Where We Gain Our Ethical Education

Jul 17 2012 Anna Paustenbach
David Brooks
New York Times columnist, David Brooks

David Brooks’ article, “The Service Patch’s” main argument focuses on the following claim: it is not the career choice that informs morality but the professional education one receives through their career field that informs their moral vocabulary and awareness. Given that more affluent college graduates are working at financial or consulting jobs than at NPOs or in the government service sector, the most common professional education of young adults today is that of a for-profit worldview. The vocabulary, not the job, becomes a problem, according to Brooks: “Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs…People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.”

Brooks argues that this decrease in ethical education results in an incomplete understanding of morality. His term, the “service patch,” suggests that “community service” is an empty stand-in to indicate social awareness and moral comprehension. Brooks explains, “the discussion [about professional trending] also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.”

In other words, “community service” does not replace or represent an ethical education. One reason people no longer have a vocabulary that reflects such an education is because of the decrease of young, affluent adults in the non-profit sector and the increase of this population in finance and business careers. This trend in career choices indicates a change in professional language in which qualitative, problem solving vocabulary is replaced with a quantitative, financial-based one. While Brooks is careful to qualify his jabs at financial rhetoric—“It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero”—he still ends up suggesting that professional education informs an ethical vocabulary that inherently influences a person’s morality.

Where do we gain our moral education and ethical vocabulary? What role does one’s profession and/or professional education play in their ethics? What type of vocabulary should we employ in order to be civically engaged community members? Are there ways that civic reflection can help? We think so and are interested in your thoughts.

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