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 collapse, and social life with it.
Why cannot liars take advantage of everyone else telling the truth, lie when it suits them, and do even better than their honest competitors in the struggle for survival? Readers of Robert Frank’s Passions Within Reason1—whose work Wilson duly and gratefully acknowledges—will recall some of the ingenious arguments evolutionists have come up with. A particularly nice one is the thought that honest people watch for cheats and only cooperate with people who look honest. It is no use relying on what people say about themselves, but uncontrollable physiological reactions that accompany lying, such as blushing, sweaty palms, or a faster heartbeat give us what we need. Having these reactions makes us worse liars but also makes us more likely to benefit from the actions of other people. By being disabled from successful predation on our fellow creatures we are enabled to become successful cooperators.
The Moral Sense is described by Mary Ann Glendon as “the most significant reflection on these matters since Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.” This is a bold claim. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1759; Wilson’s competitors over the intervening two hundred and forty years include Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche among German writers; Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick among the British; William James, John Dewey, and John Rawls among the Americans. James Q. Wilson is, indeed, a most distinguished social scientist, recently president of the American Political Science Association—the main ideas of The Moral Sense were trailed in his presidential address2—and the author with Richard Herrnstein of controversial studies of the contribution of heredity to criminality, and lately of the much admired Bureaucracy.
As a collection of bits and pieces from the anthropological and psychological literature on such diverse matters as the way babies relate to their mothers, the practice of infanticide, the motives of people who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis—and those of the depressingly ordinary and otherwise decent people who murdered them—The Moral Sense is readable and interesting. Two fascinating chapters on the family and on how the moral outlooks of men and women differ suggest the rather gloomy conclusion that if the human race is to survive it had better be as a single-sex society; not, I hasten to say, that Wilson draws this conclusion. Wilson hankers after 1950s America rather than Brave New World. Nonetheless he deliberately provokes the thought:
It seems clear that Mother Nature would much prefer to produce only girls, because she does such a poor job of producing boys. Her preferences are quite clear in this regard: all fetuses begin as females; only in the third month of gestation does masculinization begin. And when it does begin it is a process sometimes prone to error, leading to all manner of deficiencies and abnormalities. Not only do men have a shorter life expectancy than women, a fact that might be explained by their more violent tendencies, but the higher mortality rate appears almost from the beginning: male fetuses are more likely than female ones to die in utero, and male infants have a higher death rate than female infants. Having invented the male, Mother Nature doesn’t quite know what to do with him. It is as if she had suddenly realized, too late, what every student of biology now knows: asexual reproduction is far more efficient than sexual reproduction. But now we are stuck with men who are likely to be both troublesome and vulnerable.
Utopian speculation is not Professor Wilson’s style. Sadly, the philosophical tradition in which arguments about the existence or nonexistence of a moral sense developed is almost equally alien to him. The Moral Sense suggests that he is as far out of his depth in the company of philosophers as most philosophers are in the company of anthropologists and political scientists. Reporting on research into the reactions of infants, the different social styles of various pre-industrial societies, and much else besides, it is crisp, clear, and informative. Taking on large conceptual issues, it is diffuse, repetitive, and sometimes just incoherent: when Wilson wants to insist that we are naturally endowed with a moral sense, he denies that life in the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as Thomas Hobbes famously described it), but when he wants to remind us how aggressive young men are, he cites “one review of the archaeological literature” to suggest that “in the state of nature about one-quarter of all the human males died in fights….”
Professor Wilson is an enviably brisk and lucid writer; here he writes as well as ever, and with a proper degree of passion. Nonetheless the result is a strange mixture of moral panic and intellectual complacency, of wide reading and great empirical learning on the one hand, and simple bluster on the other. Philosophers have learned not to insult social scientists by pretending that they knew all along what it takes painstaking empirical research to discover; Professor Wilson has not yet learned the converse lesson—that moral philosophy can’t be set to rights by a few insights from social science. Professor Wilson used to teach at Harvard, and now works in Los Angeles, but reading The Moral Sense can be much like a bad evening at an Oxford high table.
The Moral Sense survives its deficiencies because its subject matter is intrinsically interesting. By the time Aristotle asked the famous question, “Is there one justice, as fire burns here and in Persia?” Greek chroniclers and philosophers had already been arguing for generations about the connection between morality and nature. Aristotle is, rightly, one of Wilson’s heroes both because he asked the right questions about the way ethics is grounded in human nature and because he did not oversimplify the results. Aristotle saw that the fact that different human societies had very different ideas about things they minded about very much—how to treat the dead, who could marry whom, who should govern, and how they should govern—raised the question whether morality is merely conventional, varying without any particular reason from one society to another.
The fact that within any given society these moral standards were used to judge one another’s behavior made it more than a matter of intellectual curiosity to know whether some societies’ standards were more in accordance with nature than others’. When we fine, jail, and execute people for breaking the laws of our society, we do so with an easier conscience if we believe that those laws are built on something more solid than local habit. Even when we know that what we are enforcing is a matter of local habit—Americans drive on the right, Japanese on the left—we want something more than local habit to justify our insistence that people should take the local habit seriously. Neither Japanese nor Americans want to get killed when driving, so it matters, absolutely and non-locally, to go along with the local rules of the road.
There are many views about how to discover what matters. Divine revelation, whether viva voce from God in person, via priests and prophets, or via sacred writings is one; appeals to the conscience is another; the calculation of what rules and prescriptions self-interested persons would do well to follow is another. The view that a “moral sense” tells us what matters is yet another. But theories of the moral sense have a checkered past. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill regarded appeals to a moral sense as ipse dixitism—Bentham’s term for arguments that boil down to “because I say so.” People who claimed that the rights of property owners are sacrosanct, and offered this as a revelation of a moral sense, were claiming that they could see that property is sacred, much as we can see that that’s an elephant over there. But Mill and Bentham attacked a view that Wilson does not defend. They attacked the idea that human beings apprehended moral truths—on the whole they thought this meant the truth of statements about moral principles rather than particular cases—by way of a specific moral faculty or sense. Wilson disavows both thoughts; the moral sense is not a specific faculty, and it does not pick up objective moral truths. How seriously he means this is hard to tell. In dedicating his book to “David and Elizabeth and moral sensors yet to come” he seems to want to have it both ways. Talk of “sensors” implies rather strongly that we sense something out there in the world.
Reviewed here, May 18, 1989.↩
The address appeared in American Political Science Review, March 1993.↩