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.
Another version of “moral sense” theory, however, makes no claims about the connection between moral sentiments and moral truths. It holds only that people have moral sentiments, that is, feelings of a distinctively moral kind. It appears that this is the theory he espouses. For a social scientist, Professor Wilson is oddly uninterested in what distinguishes moral sentiments from other sentiments; but what he says in passing suggests that he subscribes to the familiar view that the moral sentiments are uncalculating, not directly self-interested, and imbued with a certain sort of importance. That is, when we see someone behave cruelly, we are immediately roused to indignation, not as the result of some sort of argumentative process. A failure to react with the right degree of spontaneous emotion is seen as a defect, as Michael Dukakis found to his cost during the presidential debates of 1988. Again, when we are treated unjustly, it is the injustice we resent, not just the damage we have suffered.
Wilson makes the point very deftly by reminding the reader that we are embarrassed at unjust praise, where we have something agreeable but undeserved. If everything boiled down to self-interest, we should have no such feeling. “Importance” is hard to describe except negatively; we don’t think it is optional whether to be just, honest, and non-cruel. We get angry at breaches of moral principle, but not at lapses of taste, says Wilson, and that seems generally right, though it hardly covers extreme cases. The reactions to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano suggest that taste certainly can provoke as much anger as morality; few people reacted as angrily to Michael Milken’s multimillion-dollar frauds as to Piss Christ.
Wilson may have an answer to such doubts; he includes politeness in the list of the moral virtues we intuitively applaud, and I suppose he might want to draw a line between “mere” taste and outrageous obscenity in terms of what does and does not violate norms of politeness.
Then the interesting question is whether we all have the same sentiments. Merely observing that different societies observe different codes does not prove anything one way or the other, since mankind may share the same moral sentiments, even though they lavish them on very different objects. Wilson’s answer is that they do. What he wants to defend is the thought that there is some bedrock human nature to which every human culture has to adapt itself, and that this human nature includes our moral sentiments, sentiments which need to be nurtured and shaped by the society we grow up in, but which are not created by it out of nothing. His enemy is the cultural or moral relativist, the person who thinks, as Pascal once put it, that “truth on one side of the Pyrenees is falsehood on the other.” All versions of that view are anathema.
How much comfort we should take in Wilson’s being right, if he is right, is another matter. For all the essentially practical concern with restoring our moral confidence that he voices in his preface, he readily admits that the fact that human beings are moral animals is no guarantee of peace or harmony. Serbians harboring historical grudges appeal to the injustice of everything since the Battle of Kosovo; conservative senators cutting welfare payments so that the rich can stay rich think that people on welfare are undeserving. Indeed, many of us would regard the project of encouraging people to feel more confidence in their moral views as thoroughly misguided. Serbs and senators alike are altogether too confident of their moral rightness already, and if there is anything that Northern Ireland needs even less than car bombs and Armalite rifles it is an increase in the moral confidence of the contending parties.
In fact, it does not look as though Wilson has any very practical aims in mind at all. The Moral Sense is essentially an in-house fight between social scientists of different persuasions, and between them and assorted philosophers. Philosophers who insist that nothing in nature guarantees the truth of our moral judgments get Wilson’s goat. One view that he singles out for attack is the logical positivist creed of the mid-1930s to the effect that statements such as “murder is wicked” are strictly speaking senseless, or, if that is a bit implausible, that they have the sense of shouts and cries and other expressions of emotion. Like many another hurried reader of A.J. Ayer’s youthful indiscretions, Wilson does not see how little damage Language, Truth and Logic’s arguments really do. Nothing in Ayer’s claim that moral judgment is expressive rather than descriptive supports (or weakens) cultural relativism. If human beings express the same moral reactions on the same occasions, morality is antirelativist; if their reactions to the same situations vary dramatically according to how they’ve been brought up, morality is more nearly relativist. What morality is not is a description of a realm of objective moral values.
If it emerges that the expressive variations are variations on a small range of themes—if we react similarly to perceived injustice, cruelty, treachery, and so on, but count rather different kinds of conduct as unjust, cruel, or treacherous, we have the case that James Wilson makes. All Ayer claimed was that saying “murder is wicked” is more like expressing shock and encouraging other people to share that sentiment than it is like describing or analyzing anything. Wilson denies that the moral sense is like a physical sense that allows us to learn the truth about the world; if he means that, he is, so far as the most contentious philosophical point at issue goes, in the same camp as Ayer.
Language, Truth and Logic was published almost sixty years ago and is hardly the dernier cri among moral relativists. Of his contemporaries, it is the American philosopher Richard Rorty who seems to irritate Wilson most. Here, too, we have a case of mistaken identity. Rorty is famous for denying that morality needs philosophical foundations—a proposition that seems less shocking applied to organic chemistry, social service administration, or shoe repairing. But Rorty holds that moral thinking, judging, and acting are self-supporting human activities in the same way as doing chemistry, mending shoes, and running a welfare system. Just as other practical activities go on satisfactorily in the absence of any philosophical justification of their intellectual respectability, so does everyday moral life.
Much like the twenty-five-year-old A.J. Ayer in 1934, Rorty puts the point hyperbolically. An organic chemist is a person who counts as one according to his fellow chemists; a morally decent person is one who counts as one according to the moral standards of his community. One might want to demur and insist that a morally decent person is one who can also judge his own community’s standards. Wilson both wants to say this and to leave it unsaid. His animus against cultural relativism makes him want to say that individuals ought to be able to stand up for morality against a wicked society, but his insistence that morality is intuitive and reactive rather than rational, and that it springs from our innate sociability, leaves him without resources for explaining how it can happen that we can learn from our teachers and then go on to dissent from them. The need to give due weight to the individual’s ability to think about morality in order to reassess his obligations was one reason behind Mill and Bentham’s hostility to talk of an innate moral sense; but Wilson has lined the two up with his enemies and cannot learn anything from them.
To give any sensible account of how it is that we can acquire standards which we turn against the society that taught them to us, we need a coherent picture of how the individual can be shaped by his upbringing and yet become an active, intelligent moral agent—one more reason for being cautious about exaggerating the extent to which morality is emotive and reactive. Wilson is so angry with Richard Rorty that when Rorty denies that we possess what he describes as a “core self” which can fulfill the task of standing back and rethinking our moral position, Wilson promptly insists that we do indeed have one. Here, too, they are at cross purposes. Wilson’s idea of the “core self” is only that we come into the world with particular aptitudes and inclinations that provide a basis on which the culture has to build—a claim that no parent would dream of denying. Rorty only denies that at the end of the process we are steered through life by a Kantian noumenal self, or a Cartesian ego, or a Platonic moral pilot.
Wilson simply does not see how far Rorty’s arguments are directed at philosophical positions, and how few practical implications they either have or are intended to have. Neither Wilson nor Rorty has anything new to say about the undeniable fact that human beings aren’t only the creations of the combined operation of nature and culture, but are themselves creators of new and different ideas, new and different standards, and new and different ways of living.
What outrages Wilson—and it must be said that it has irritated and outraged most of Rorty’s readers—is the claim that even cruelty, the avoidance of which he, like Judith Shklar, places at the very center of his politics, is not condemned by anything “universal.” This is the kind of remark that has to be made delicately, and Rorty goes out of his way to be indelicate. One way he makes the point is by saying, “I do not think there are any plain moral truths out there, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other.”3 Since scientists believe that what they find out about the world is how the world is, regardless of what we say about it, and since most of us think that cruelty is wrong, regardless of what we say about it, Rorty has naturally attracted a good deal of hostility.
Rorty adds to the provocation by refusing in the same spirit to draw hard and fast lines between matters of taste and matters of morals. The upshot is that he seems to suggest that it is just a matter of taste to deplore cruelty, as if one might say, “I think that genocide is wrong, but I have some perfectly delightful Nazi friends who’ve been doing it all their lives.” One can see why readers respond so indignantly. The rhetoric is meant to shock the reader, so Rorty can hardly complain when it does. Still it is worth remembering that Rorty’s discussion of the fragility of philosophical justifications of moral positions comes in the course of a long and not always optimistic discussion of how to sustain the achievements of modern democracies—one of the greatest of which has been the abolition of routine legal cruelty and a growing sensitivity to the accidental cruelties we inflict in everyday life. He is not in the least short of moral convictions; he is an epistemological skeptic, not a moral skeptic.
David Hume once remarked that it was not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my little finger. This is the underlying thought behind Rorty’s argument. Like Hume, Rorty says that a person who does not care about cruelty one way or another would not be strictly incoherent or illogical. He would be odd, impossible to live with, perhaps a menace, but not narrowly illogical. It would not be like his claiming to have squared the circle or (as in Noam Chomsky’s example) to have encountered colorless green ideas sleeping furiously. Nonetheless, he would be, in a way, mad. Hume scores high marks from Professor Wilson, because he believed in “human nature”4 though Wilson does not admire (or understand) the doctrine that moral distinctions do not derive from “reason.” But Hume, Rorty, and Wilson are all in the same boat. What Rorty has been saying is more platitudinous than alarming: If we had to obtain philosophical guarantees for our moral and political allegiances, we would be in a bad way. The fact that we cannot obtain such guarantees is no reason to feel that they are shakier than before.
It is not in the end entirely clear what Professor Wilson’s motives were in writing The Moral Sense; his professed reason—to encourage us in making moral judgments—makes little sense, and in any case is not followed through. One wishes he had not behaved in such a self-abnegating fashion about drawing out the policy implications of his ideas; we should have got a much more concrete sense of just why he thinks it matters whether we do or don’t have a moral sense, and a more intelligible picture of what he thinks follows from our having one. We would also get a clearer picture of what the evils are that he thinks have followed in the wake of relativism. He surely thinks that all is not well with us; and he particularly thinks that the American family is doing a bad job of socializing young men into morally acceptable behavior. Given the horrors of inner city life, it is as hard to resist that thought as it is to sneer at Wilson’s hankering after a world of politely spoken, fastidious, cooperative, and dutiful young people. What the nature of the family’s failure is, and just why it is failing is more obscure. A shortcoming of The Moral Sense is that it is short on detail about how society molds the raw material of human nature in successful and unsuccessful ways, and when he writes of the family, Wilson is better at making it seem faintly astonishing that men have ever behaved as a dutiful paterfamilias than at suggesting ways of making more of them do it again.
Merely to raise the issue of moral training in the family suggests how much Wilson could usefully have tried to tell us. Is the moral sense so thoroughly built into human nature that when one ghetto youth shoots another who has “dissed” him, we should hail this as triumph for the moral sense, or should we say that the moral sense is alive and well but trained on the wrong objects, or should we say that the moral sense has somehow withered because the young man was inadequately trained? A believer in the existence of a moral sense might want to say any of these things, but one would wish to know which way Wilson would jump. Then policy questions abound. Wilson suggests that “learning morality” is rather like learning a language, so he posits the existence of an innate capacity for learning a morality, and as with language supposes that there is only a limited period within which “morality acquisition” works smoothly. But what next? Ought we to abduct the offspring of incompetent single mothers and teach them standard morals along with English? If so, how? What would be the equivalent of a remedial English class for morally slow learners? As a most distinguished policy scientist of a conservative persuasion, Wilson could tell us a lot about all this; even those of us who do not share his politics would have learned a good deal.
Indeed, the largest general failing of The Moral Sense is that Wilson lavishes indignation on an imaginary enemy and forgets to explore the limits of his own position. He has an interesting but inconclusive chapter on what one might call the generalization or universalization of moral sentiments—how we should move from “I shouldn’t hit my little sister” to “I shouldn’t hit even a foreigner’s little sister”—and, as I have said, he is entirely sensible about recognizing that people fight more bitterly for what they see as moral principle than they do for mere self-interest. What he does not do is explore the question of how much of morality his account of human nature can deal with. He rather lazily gestures toward Aristotle’s insistence that human well-being involves a plurality of different values, and in the process helps himself to Aristotle’s view that reasonable men will always agree if they talk for long enough. But they don’t, and they almost certainly won’t in future.
Stuart Hampshire has argued rather persuasively that what we lump together as “morality” really consists of two very different things, and that Aristotle is a good guide to one but not to both.5 One covers the aspects of behavior that living together in society makes it essential to regulate, and where successful regulation can only be brought about in a fairly limited number of ways. That is what Mill called “business” morality, and Wilson sees it as having a particularly practical purpose. Justice, nonviolence, general honesty are obvious components of this realm. This is a realm where appeals to what is reasonable are absolutely apt. The other is much more open-ended; this is the realm of ideals of character, and of convictions about the ultimate purpose of existence. Here it is hard to think that there will ever be a consensus, hard to believe that any one answer will ever triumph, and hard to believe that reason will tell us very much. In particular, there is no reason to suppose that biology as ordinarily understood will be especially illuminating; evolutionary biology will yield us something, but we cannot expect it to yield us much.
Enthusiasts for evolutionary theories of human nature can claim that some truths about the world have to be known to us or else we would perish—we need to distinguish the heavy and the light, the hard and the soft, the edible and the inedible. But they can’t show an evolutionary advantage in preferring Newton to Aristotle or Einstein to Newton, let alone show that the human race was at greater risk of dying out before it discovered nuclear fission than after. A bedrock understanding of the physical world is therefore plausibly part of the innate equipment of human beings; above the bedrock rises the work of culture and speculation. Is it the same for values as for truths about the world? It seems plausible that it is. If so, moral debate will always be marked by more conflict than James Wilson is happy with.
September 23, 1993
Reviewed here, May 18, 1989. ↩
The address appeared in American Political Science Review, March 1993. ↩
“Orwell on Cruelty,” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 173; he launches the discussion by embracing Judith Shklar’s definition of a liberal as “somebody who thinks that cruelty is the worst thing we do,” p. 146, quoting her Ordinary Vices, pp. 43–44. ↩
Indeed, his most famous work was A Treatise on Human Nature. ↩
In Morality and Conflict and Innocence and Experience particularly; but Thought and Action was described to me by one admiring reader as “Aristotelian existentialism.” ↩