Sense and Sensibilities

Knowing right from wrong

The Moral Sense, by James Q. Wilson, New York: Macmillan, 313 pages, $22.95

Though perhaps not always presenting the loveliest visage nor the most edifying, the image that perpetually fascinates is the one that greets us when we gaze into the mirror. Both that which individuates oneself from other human beings and that by virtue of which we are alike captures and retains our attention as few other things can. Whether as eavesdroppers, voyeurs, Joyce Brothers groupies, or occasional readers of People magazine, nearly all of us offer implicit assent to Pope’s dictum that "the proper study of mankind is man."

Perhaps never before in the history of the sport of people watching, though, have amateurs and professionals played the game so differently. The amateur version is laced through and through with moral characterizations. We view both intimate acquaintances and distant celebrities through a prism of virtues and vices. "She’s never had a thought in her life for anyone but herself," or "That man simply can’t be trusted," we say–and thereby not only describe but evaluate.

The marriage of a royal couple breaks down, or one Balkan people with unpronounceable names sets about slaughtering its equally unpronounceable neighbors, and we bestir ourselves not only to get the facts about who may have done what to whom and why, but then also to sympathize with one party and blame the other. Even when these doings have no perceptible effect on our own welfare, we do not sit on the sidelines as dispassionate observers. Instead we react emotionally to other people’s displays of loyalty, treachery, steadfastness, compassion, bravery, duplicity, or whatever–and in our more introspective moments we are cheered or dismayed to view such qualities in ourselves.

But this sort of folk moral psychologizing has increasingly been called into question during the past couple centuries by scholars of human behavior. Economists look at people buying and selling, working and investing, and see various clones of a one-dimensional fellow named Homo economicus who, with single-minded determination, rationally acts to advance his own narrowly materialistic self-interest. He is, in the parlance of the profession, a "utility maximizer," and the utility that moves him is uniquely his own.

Nor does Homo economicus confine himself to the market. The work of path-breaking recent Nobel Prize winners such as James Buchanan and Gary Becker shows him equally at home while running for political of fice, dressing according to the latest fashion trends, marrying and raising children. Evolutionary biologists tell a complementary story. We are the descendants

of generations that won a share of the survival game through assiduously enhancing their fitness potential. Those disposed to sacrifice their own prospects for the sake of their fellows returned their bones and chromosomes to the primeval ooze whence they came, while more consistently "eelfish genes" left

progeny that eventually generated you and me.

If economics and biology maintain that competition in markets and mating crowds morality out of our nature, behavioral psychology and anthropology assume a yet more radical stance in denying that there is, in any interesting sense, such a thing as human nature. According to B.F. Skinner, we come into existence as blank tablets waiting to be written on by environmental influences. Whether these conditioning factors are deliberately engineered or thoroughly adventitious, they determine all our behavior. Separating an Albert Schweitzer and a Hermann Goering are only the vagaries of their reinforcement schedules.

For anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, "there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture." That which fascinates or repels, inspires or sickens us is rendered such through the imperatives of our cultural inheritance. It could have been radically different–and, as field anthropologists report, elsewhere it is. Values are, without exception, culturally relative; to suppose that one’s own standards of rightness or decency are inherently more justifiable than their contraries is to be guilty of smallminded parochialism (and, most likely, to participate in the bigotry that has been endemic to the West).

In the one account, then, human beings do have a nature, but it exhibits calculating self-concern that excludes genuine sacrifice for others; in the other we are born without any fixed nature and take on whatever values society etches on us. These present significantly different images of what it is to be human, but they join in rejecting traditional (Christian and philosophical) conceptions of a universal human nature that is in some way fundamentally moral. That rejection of a morally imbued human nature finds further support in powerful intellectual currents such as a Freudianism that sees conscience as the product of harmful repression, the Nietzschean transmutation of all values, and a deconstructionism that subverts the claims of a putatively objective moral order.

It is against these powerful forces of modernity that The Moral Sense jousts. "Virtue has acquired a bad name," proclaims Wilson in the book’s first sentence, and the succeeding sentences aim at rectifying that blot. He forthrightly takes his stand with the amateur people watchers, at least to the extent that they have not themselves been corrupted by prevailing intellectual fashions. Ironically, though, the evidence on which he relies to combat the picture of human beings as self-absorbed social atoms is drawn largely from just those sciences that originally promoted that conception.

Wilson’s revisionary reading of their results carries conviction. Is it really plausible to suppose that evolution has selected fo uniform selfishness? We are a species in which dependency of the young is both profound and prolonged. If adults were not disposed at some very deep level to invest considerable resources in their survival, we would long ago have been written off as an evolutionary dead end.

Accordingly, the primary basis of sociality can be located in the bond between mothers and their children. Infants within a few hours of their birth observe and imitate. They are genetically programmed to elicit through their appearance and behavior affection and nurturance, in the first instance from their mothers but to a non-negligible extent also from fathers, other kin, and the wider community of adults. (Those smiling, chubby babies of the Michelin TV ads capture the attention and tire-buying dollars of consumers to whom they stand in no blood relation.) Infants imbibe at the breast not only nutrition but also their first lessons in cooperation. Countless millennia of genetic programming have prepared them to do so.

Aristotle, often cited by Wilson, noted some 23 centuries ago that the circumstances in which human beings find themselves are endlessly varied, and thus so too is the range of cultural adaptation found in human communities. But against the extreme cultural relativism of the sophists Aristotle contended that underlying this diversity are universal principles of human conduct, that there exist always and everywhere dispositions of character that enhance their possessors’ ability to lead rich, full, genuinely human lives. These dispositions he identified as the moral virtues. They include temperance, courage, prudence, and justice.

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