The Moral Sense
James Wilson’s new book is astonishingly ambitious and at the same time disarmingly restrained. Wilson’s aim is nothing less than to rehabilitate our everyday moral intuitions—at risk, says Wilson, from a motley array of philosophers, sociologists, and displaced Parisian intellectuals. But Wilson aims to do it without pushing any particular policy agenda:
I wrote this book to help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality. I did not write it in order to make a case for or against some currently disputed moral question, but rather to reestablish the possibility and the reasonableness of speaking frankly and convincingly about moral choices….
Why have people lost the confidence with which they once spoke publicly about morality? Why has moral discourse become unfashionable or merely partisan? I believe it is because we have learned, either firsthand from intellectuals or secondhand from the pronouncements of people influenced by intellectuals, that morality has no basis in science or logic. To defend morality is to defend the indefensible.
Wilson’s argument is in essence that the heart has its reasons that Reason can neither understand nor undermine. Morality rests on sentiment, but not, he insists, “mere sentiment.” Human beings are by nature sociable, and therefore they are by nature moral. This does not mean they are equipped with an “innate idea” of right and wrong; nor does it mean that they are naturally equipped with a universal intuitive rule book. It means that they are naturally disposed to prefer justice to injustice, to deplore cruelty, to sympathize with distress, to foster the well-being of their kin and—more fragilely—of their non-kin, too. The social sciences show that in all human societies the basic moral principles essential to peace and survival are much the same and have much the same grip on the feelings of societies’ members. Evolutionary biology suggests many reasons why this should be so: the children of parents who were genetically disposed to ignore their existence would just die; societies where nobody cooperated with anyone else would collapse.
Appealing to evolution is not the same thing as appealing to the idea that human beings are driven by self-interest. One of Wilson’s many targets is the way economists apply assumptions about the self-seeking behavior of people in the marketplace to the whole of human existence. Though it is true that parents as well as children benefit when parents bring up their children successfully—they support us in old age, they provide emotional pleasure, their regard for us props up our self-esteem—it cannot, Wilson writes, be the whole story. The payoffs are too remote and too uncertain to justify the sacrifices that parents habitually make. Only a specific sentiment in favor of nurturing children can explain the way we behave. A species equipped with such sentiments will flourish in a way a more selfish species will not. The same considerations hold for honesty; if we told the truth only when it benefited us, truth-telling would be impossible, communication would…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.