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 office, 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 "selfish 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 for 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.

Wilson, with surprisingly little modification of the Aristotelian original, argues against contemporary heirs of the sophists that virtually all of us are incipiently moral beings. Only psychopaths fail utterly to be moved by moral sentiments, and the lives they live are subhuman. Those of us not psychopathically disabled routinely exhibit certain emotions and moral propensities in our dealings with others. These include sympathy with the weal and woe of those with whom we interact, conceptions of fairness based on reciprocity and proportional contribution to desirable social outcomes, acknowledgment of a need for self-control in the face of various temptations, and a sense of duty that bids us to fulfill obligations even when doing so doesn't advance our own welfare.

That is not to say, of course, that when push comes to shove people are always directed by these moral impulses. We are moral beings but not only moral beings; our nature incorporates alongside altruism generous measures of ambition, avarice, and aggression. We are, in a word, complex. Aristotle was well aware of this complexity, as was the 18th-century British theorist of the moral sense, Francis Hutcheson, and his students David Hume and Adam Smith. These latter three are explicitly adopted by Wilson (evidenced in his choice of title) as chief philosophical allies. Advanced contemporary thought labels as naive their theories of a human nature characterized by proclivities to moral behavior that may be overridden but never completely extirpated. Instead, the real naivete is to suppose that a fellow as flat and featureless as Homo economicus could be a passable likeness of us in all our complexity.

The Moral Sense contributes significantly and with not a little bravery to the people-watching enterprise. Wilson ventures various hypotheses concerning the significance of ethnicity and, especially, gender that bump up against contemporary taboos of American university culture. ("We don't say 'mothering,' we say 'parenting'!") And though recognizably conservative in his views, he skirts the ideological cant of the right almost as successfully as he does the regnant pieties of the left.

Perhaps most notable is Wilson's achievement in presenting the findings of a half dozen social sciences in a manner that renders this mass of information not only readable but, in places, even gripping. I found especially intriguing his speculations concerning why in one corner of Europe and North America but nowhere else during the entire history of the world there happened to emerge in partial replacement of the morality of one's own group the conviction that there exist human rights that extend to all people everywhere. Without quite falling into reductionism, he identifies uniquely northern European patterns of matrimony and child rearing as the crucial preludes to enhanced respect for the individual and the ethical universalism that derives from it.

Frankly, I found these more speculative excursions more stimulating than the chapters that advance the central thesis of a universal human moral nature. For truth be told, and despite the extravagant dust-jacket blurbs from a passel of distinguished intellectuals who should—and probably do—know better, Wilson is hardly the first major social thinker since Adam Smith to reflect on the moral springs of human activity. Although Wilson avails himself of the author's prerogative of inflating the menace of his opponents before eviscerating them, he graciously acknowledges the work of numerous other scholars who have drawn similar conclusions concerning moral anthropology.

I shall, therefore, in what follows take it as established that there is such a thing as human nature and that it is, in an important sense, moral. That is to grant Wilson much of that for which he argues—much but not all. For beyond maintaining that we are moral beings, he additionally affirms, even accords titular status to, the proposition that we are beings who possess a moral sense. In saying this he is explicitly following Hutcheson and, he thinks (mistakenly), Hume and Smith. But Wilson is neither consistent in this affirmation nor fully cognizant of the sort of claim that he thereby advances.

What is it to say that human beings possess a moral sense? It is, minimally, to advance an epistemological hypothesis. Our senses are conduits of information between us and the world. That daffodils are yellow, that sugar is sweeter than vinegar and lead heavier than water are data received through our senses. Senses are cognitive capacities, albeit neither infallible nor self-interpreting, that put the self in contact with that which is not self. They afford us knowledge.

It is not only skeptics and nihilists who philosophize concerning the conditions of human knowledge. One who is quite confident that he knows that the sun is bigger than the moon, that three plus two equals five, or that the world contains many other minds besides one's own may nonetheless find it no small task to explain how it is that these facts are known to be facts. And, of course, sometimes what has long been believed to be solid knowledge is unexpectedly revealed to be fallacy or arrant superstition.

To a degree unprecedented in human history, the 16th and 17th centuries featured such episodes of so-called science displayed in its true colors as nescience. Not only geocentric astronomy and the dogmas of Catholic Christianity suffered turmoil and upset; also called into question was the Aristotelian conception of a hierarchically structured universe permeated with value. Old answers concerning the basis of our knowledge of good and evil failed to satisfy emerging standards of justified belief. In the wake of the collapse of the Aristotelian synthesis, philosophers had to rethink not so much the content of ordinary morality as its epistemic provenance.

The British since medieval times had been empiricist by temperament, one reason why they were quick to jump on the bandwagon of the new experimental sciences. So Hutcheson's moral theory managed to position itself as both thoroughly conservative and in keeping with contemporary scientific fashions. Bona fide knowledge, he conceded, came through the senses. So too with moral knowledge. Our perceptions of good and bad are not some occult deliverance but rather the product of a special sense, the moral sense. All unimpaired human beings are endowed with a moral sense. Although, like the other senses, it is not immune from illusion and delusion, its existence explains how people come to possess moral knowledge and why, for the most part, we agree in our judgments of rightness and wrongness.

The fatal difficulty with Hutcheson's account is the disparity between senses like sight and smell on the one hand and the putative moral sense on the other hand. For the former we can identify discrete organs of sensation and trace out the mechanisms through which external stimuli issue in cognitive data. But the alleged organ of moral sensation and its operations are altogether mysterious. For this reason, Hume and Smith jettison Hutcheson's so-called moral sense in their reconstructions of morality. Wilson either is unaware of this disagreement or chooses to downplay its significance. But this is no minor pedant's quarrel; the implications strike deep.

To see why that is so, consider the following analogy. Suppose someone intent to vindicate the existence of religious knowledge maintains that human beings have by nature a theistic sense. In fact, predecessors and contemporaries of Hutcheson advanced precisely that claim. Calvin held that man has a sense of the divine that, though severely damaged by Adam's fall, divulges to us the identity of our Maker. The 17th-century mathematician/philosopher Rene Descartes maintained similarly that there is in each of us an innate idea of God impressed on our minds like the mark a potter stamps on the vessels he makes. Thus the most certain and unmediated knowledge we have of any being beyond the self is our knowledge of God.

Note that these aren't merely pious affirmations of the existence of a God but also theories of how that existence is known. Importantly, they amount to considerably more than the claim that human beings are, by and large, religiously inclined. For there may be some common human trait that explains why we are prone to fancies of higher beings quite independent of the existence of such beings. (Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud each offered theories concerning the nature of that trait.) And it may be important that social scientists make themselves aware of this propensity so that they don't, to cite just one instance, find themselves thoroughly surprised by the recrudescence of religious fundamentalism during the final quarter of the 20th century.

That, though, is not to acknowledge the existence of a theistic sense. In particular there is no such sense if there exists no external reality that stands as both stimulus and object of our religious apprehensions. And the existence of such an object is precisely what atheists deny, even as they may acknowledge the ubiquity of religious feeling among human beings. Similarly, a moral skeptic can easily concede that Wilson has demonstrated the ubiquity of moral feelings but deny that this constitutes any vindication of the claims of ordinary morality.

Unlike Wilson, Hume and Smith were sharply aware of the gulf between acknowledging that human beings are moved by various moral sentiments and ascribing to them a moral sense. Thus neither Hume nor Smith commits himself to the existence of a world of moral facts to which we have unmediated cognitive access. Instead each attempts to explain how we are able to formulate interpersonally justifiable moral judgments in the absence of a faculty of moral sense. It is by no means obvious how this is at all possible. The theories they offer are subtle, beautiful, and importantly different one from the other. But for Wilson, it might just as well have been one man writing under the names "Hutcheson," "Hume," and "Smith." Wilson's admirers do him no favor in placing The Moral Sense in that august company.

Wilson's contribution is more modest, but it is nonetheless real. Against enthusiasts for the programmatic remaking of human beings and the societies in which they live, Wilson provides a useful reminder that currents of human moral psychology run deep and are not easily diverted from their natural course. Successful sociality, he tells us, is not a given—who could have observed last year's Los Angeles or this year's Bosnia and think otherwise?—but rather is predicated on the tricky and easily fumbled task of actualizing the human potential for self-control and fairness to others.

This is not a book of moral philosophy, but it is a lively, learned, and sometimes passionate account of what virtue is and why it matters. If The Moral Sense succeeds in its aim of persuading people that they need not feel self-conscious or old-fashioned when they invoke the strictures of traditional morality or reject the proposed panaceas of would-be pundits who claim to be offering a sure-fire prescription for the remolding of infinitely malleable human clay, it will, in some measure, help make this a better world.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky is a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University.