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James Q. Wilson and the Roots of Morality

Brian C. Anderson

For much of Western history philosophers were willing to allow the existence of a social side to human nature, although it was at the same time recognized that this social side did not always find expression against competing selfish tendencies at war with it for dominion over the human soul. Aristotle, for example, held man to be a naturally social being, who, in his constitution, was predisposed to act morally and to seek happiness. Aquinas argued that man was inclined by nature to be a rational, familial being -- that, in other words, the moral law was innate.

Modern philosophy, and modern thought as a whole, has largely distanced itself from this tradition of thought about human nature and morality. Marxism tended to reduce morality (along with religion, philosophy, politics, and just about everything else) to mere "ideological reflexes," epiphenomenal productions or byproducts of the concrete, material life of men and women. Analytic philosophy was no kinder to morality: "values" were to be rigorously distinguished from facts, relegated to the world of personal preference and dismissed from the purview of intelligent conversation -- one could no more rationally talk about ethics than one could talk about what flavour of ice cream was best. Continental philosophy, when not under the direct sway of Marxism, advanced theories which tended to be so many variations on nihilism: from existentialism to deconstructionalism the refrain has been repeated that there is no inherently human value and that beliefs are entirely a result of history and circumstance. Richard Rorty, perhaps the most influential contemporary philosopher, has given the clearest expression to this nihilism (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) when he asserted that there is no universally valid answer to the question "why not be cruel?" While there have been notable exceptions (Leo Strauss, Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron come quickly to mind) it is no exaggeration to say that modern philosophy has abandoned the language of morality. Even though modernity's relativist philosophers continue to make moral judgements, (as a cursory reading of any page of Michel Foucault or Richard Rorty's work will reveal), the ground for those judgements has disappeared, the result being, more often than not, conceptual incoherence.

Things are little better in the realm of the social sciences. In psychology, the influence of Freud has rendered suspect any imputation of a natural sociability, a moral sense, to the human subject -- men are moral as a result of the repression of amoral, savage instincts -- and led to a reductivism that, in Freud's latterday followers like Jacques Lacan, appears as crude as it does arcane. Economics, the most confident of the human sciences, advances a conception of human nature, but the homo economicus at the heart of economic theory, the rationally calculating man, bears little relation to the flesh and blood people we meet every day. He is more akin to Hobbes's savage in the state of nature than many economists may be willing to admit. Anthropology, correctly noting the endless diversity of mores that make up the rich tapestry of human culture, has wrongly inferred from that insight that there are no transcultural standards of judgement; that to speak of universality and right and wrong in the same breath is to speak the language of ethnocentrism, the cardinal sin an anthropologist can commit. (But how can there be a cardinal sin if there are no universal standards?)

As James Q. Wilson observes in his remarkable new book, The Moral Sense, these currents in modern thought have thankfully passed most people by, too sensibly concerned as they are with the permanent facts of human existence -- family, relationships, the raising of children -- to take notice of the spiritual despair of the intellectuals. Most people remain moral, most of the time, in spite of two centuries worth of intellectual discourse discrediting the very idea and possibility of morality. The reasons for the persistence of a sense of right and wrong, Wilson believes, are biological and behavioral: we have a core self, affected but not determined by culture, that includes both self-interest and a capacity to judge disinterestedly how that self-interest should be pursued. In short, we still act morally because within us can be found a moral sense. Wilson's book, very unfashionably, seeks to uncover the evolutionary, cultural and developmental origins of our moral sense; it is an enterprise worthy of the masters of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith and David Hume, in its scope, powers of synthesis, clarity of expression, and willingness to skirt disciplinary boundaries, and it shares with the principal writings of those thinkers a profound faith in humanity conspicuously absent in the works of most moderns.

Wilson's basic argument is, then, that human beings are born with an innate moral sense, rooted in our biological matrix as social animals, the result of millennia of evolution. This sensibility can vary in intensity and expression as a result of genetic factors, cultural patterns, and family up-bringing, but it is universal, appearing across societies, across history. Whatever the society, Wilson maintains, sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty can be found at the heart of social life, even as they come into conflict with less benign natural impulses or with each other. Cultural relativists have focused too much on the disparate rules found from one society to another; the moral sense is best understood as a series of dispositions that will appear differently in differing circumstances. The theatre in which the moral sense is primarily nurtured or deformed is the family, a universal institution that is under severe pressure in the modern world, particularly in the West; if it is forced into bankruptcy as a result of this cultural and intellectual pressure, the costs will be considerable, including the further desiccation of moral life.

Sympathy is defined by Wilson as "the human capacity for being affected by the feelings and experiences of others." Following Adam Smith, Wilson avers that sympathy serves both as an important standard for moral judgement and as a motive for moral action: feeling another's pain, we find ourselves compelled to alleviate his suffering or take revenge on his persecutor. But sympathy is tightly related to similarity, leading us to sympathize with those most like us, while viewing the fate of strangers with indifference, or at worst, hostility. It is, in other words, a double edged sword, the source of community at the same time as it is a source of war. As Wilson convincingly argues in a historical excursus near the end of the book, it has only been in the West, with its legacy of democratic individualism and universalism that sympathy (and the other aspects of the moral sense) have occasionally been extended to include the other along with the same.

The second moral sense Wilson examines is that of fairness, which, he stresses, goes beyond the Mafia ethic of a modus vivendi between self-interested Hobbesian calculators to include a genuine disposition for sharing. This sense of fairness can be seen early on in the moral development of the child: children share spontaneously before they can even talk (a way of courting other people); by the time they leave elementary school they can be found arguing for or against competing principles of fair allocation. There are, Wilson argues, three elements to the sense of fairness: equity, reciprocity, and impartiality. Equity involves a rule of proportionality in distribution; in other words, things should be divided among people in proportion to their perceived worth or on the basis of their contribution. Reciprocity can be summed up in the simple phrase I helped you, so you ought to help me, an idea that can be discovered in every society. Finally impartiality requires that one be treated in a disinterested, unprejudiced way.

Wilson maintains that the three rules of fairness have their source, like all the moral senses, in the parent-child relationship, itself the outcome of natural selection. But cultural patterns determine who is to be regarded as equal to whom; particular societies will exclude individuals and groups from the scope of fairness, in the worst instances considering them entirely outside the range of moral obligation. The moral sense of fairness, Wilson goes on to add, falls short of the demands of radical egalitarians in its refusal to sanction equality of outcomes -- most of us intuitively feel that those who work harder or are more talented should be compensated accordingly -- and in accepting this commonsense insight he shows himself to be sharply critical of modern liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Rousseau, at least, was more consistent than these later thinkers, who remain somewhat ambivalent about the status of private property, in that he realized the fundamental incompatibility of equality and private property. As Wilson, following Rousseau, emphasizes, from the moment private property is accepted natural inequalities can no longer be hidden; equality of outcomes become impossible "because inequality of contributions become manifest." But as philosophers dating back to antiquity have appreciated, man is an acquisitive animal -- having as well as sharing are natural dispositions -- and private property is thus best seen as an outgrowth of human nature. To try to destroy private property, as the Marxists discovered at great cost in human lives, would inevitably involve a massive and ultimately futile assault on human nature.

Self-control and duty are the other two moral senses Wilson discusses in the course of his study. Self-control is a virtue for the very important reason that most of what we believe to be best for us, nearly all the human excellences, require us to forego immediate gratification. For evolutionary reasons, however, this moral sense emerges less from the natural sociability of the morally developing child, and more from the input of parents. In an MTV era of instant gratification, self control is increasingly elusive, a tendency exacerbated by pressures experienced by the modern family. This is a fact that should trouble us, Wilson stresses, for many of the pathologies of contemporary society "are at root problems of impulsivity."

Duty, Wilson writes, "is the disposition to honor obligations even without hope of reward or fear of punishment." One reveals himself to be moral "not merely by honoring obligations but by being disposed to honor them even when it is not in his interest to do so." Duty is, however, in spite of its value, the weakest of the moral senses because it cuts against the grain of self-interest so frequently. It is Adam Smith's "impartial spectator" located within, the conscience that sets itself up in judgement over our actions. Freud wrongly believed that the sense of duty was the result of the internalization of parental authority -- the greater the authority, therefore, the greater the conscience. Wilson shows that conscience grows, not out of repression, as Freud would have us think, but out of our innate desire for attachment; the people exhibiting the strongest sense of duty would be those with the deepest affiliations, not those with the greatest fear. This observation finds support in what we have learned about the brave souls who, at great risk to themselves, went out of their way to help the victims of Nazi persecution during World War II: the majority of those interviewed revealed extremely warm relations with their parents. It was love more than guilt that motivated them; love and a well developed moral sensibility. Duty reaches its apogee during such extreme circumstances but it is also something necessary in mundane affairs -- voting, keeping promises, paying taxes. As most of us will readily admit, too seldom do we listen to the call of duty.

Where does the moral sense find its ultimate source? How much of it is biologically rooted, how much the result of culture or family? Wilson's answer is complex and takes up the second half of his book. Like Aristotle, Wilson sees man as a social animal, who struggles to reconcile the partially warring parts of his universally occurring nature -- the desire for survival and sustenance with the desire for companionship and approval. And not just a social animal by accident, but a social animal by nature -- that is as a consequence of biological predispositions selected for over eons of evolutionary history.

As we have seen, however, Wilson views the family as the essential place where the natural predisposition to act morally is developed or deformed, and the pages he dedicates to the role of the family are among the most illuminating in The Moral Sense. In these pages, Wilson compares family dynamics in the United States with those found in Japan, explaining the distinctive attitudes adopted towards individual and community, towards the respective place of rights and duties manifest in the two countries, as being in part a result of contrasting child-rearing practices. He also does not shy away from presenting certain disturbing facts: that children do not fare as well when brought up in day care centres; that children with mothers and fathers in an intact family unit tend to do better than those coming from broken homes. One does not have to be a partisan of the "family values" debate to admit the urgency of the questions raised by Wilson's analysis.

Gender, too, influences the moral sense, in that men and women bring distinctive moral orientations to bear on public and private life. Men, for example, are much more difficult to socialize -- they are more aggressive, not as a result of upbringing, but as a result of nature. That aggressiveness can be tempered, channelled, given various outlets but, short of some future genetic intervention, cannot be eradicated. Utilizing Carol Gilligan's research on the effects of gender on moral development, Wilson points out that men and women tend to approach moral dilemmas differently, with men thinking more abstractly about moral conflict, women often showing greater sympathy and sensitivity to context. These observations noted, however, Wilson underscores that the most pressing problem for any settled society is the socialization of males, a process that has broken down in America's cities with disastrous consequences.

One of the most extraordinary occurrences in the moral history of humanity has been, as Wilson correctly remarks, "the rise -- and occasionally the application -- of the view that all people, and not just one's own kind, are entitled to fair treatment." Why did this understanding of the scope of morality gain prominence in the West? This extension of the moral sense beyond the clan or tribe, the aspiration to universality as Wilson calls it, can be correlated with the transformations in the structure of the Western family and with the historical appearance of private property. The institution of consensual marriage which emerged in northwestern Europe, the result of Catholic Church reforms dating from at least the 7th century, gave the individual greater authority, helping to decisively erode the power of clans; while the "remarkable and still unexplained development in property relations" represented by the existence of private property in England, dating from the 13th century, was a catalyst for the development of the English common law, a "broader set of claims about individual rights." These historical transformations are part of the explanation of why the Enlightenment occurred in the West and nowhere else; why, that is, the philosophical ideas of universal obligation and individualism, which had been given expression as early as the Stoics, took root in practice. In Wilson's nuanced judgement, however, the enlightenment, in taking up and extending these transformations, left in its wake an ambiguous legacy:

My view is that much wanton cruelty and unreasoning prejudice are averted by a family system that encourages a belief in individual dignity and a widely extended capacity for sympathy and by the widespread ownership of private property. But unlike some enthusiasts of the Enlightenment, I believe that this gain is purchased at a price, and sometimes a very high one: a lessened sense of honor and duty, and a diminished capacity for self- control.

In other words, Wilson is arguing that the Western experience has carried within itself the seed of its own corruption -- the liberating individualism of democratic modernity has undermined the basis of its own historical success by dissolving the markers of certainty and calling into question every tradition, every obligation, every restraint. Liberty is shading into licence, Wilson is quietly telling us, and a democratic republic based solely on licence will have increasing difficulties functioning. The proliferation of what Mary Ann Glendon has called "rights talk" and the suffocatingly legalistic tone of contemporary moral philosophy are only two of the intellectual symptoms of this historical process.

In a century characterized by unimaginable atrocities, it is a brave person who can still speak of human beings as naturally moral. But most of us, most of the time, still act morally, still speak about right and wrong, still love and nurture our children. Wilson has chosen to focus on these enduring moral dispositions, reminding us of our better nature. He has written a book that returns to the insights of the ancients while using, somewhat ironically, the tools of modern social science. As Michael Novak has recently written (in This Hemisphere of Liberty),

The ancients noted the ideal form of human nature, the human capacity for knowing and loving. These capacities are inherently social. Therefore, for the ancients, humans are social animals -- at least ideally, in their capacities, if not always in practice.

The Moral Sense echoes these ancient understandings, so much at variance with the shifting winds of modern thought. It is ultimately a hopeful work, full of implications for how we should tend the polis, but there is no claim here to rationally found a new or old morality. Rather, Wilson's effort has more to do with listening to the lessons of the human heart and attending to the maintenance of atrophied habits, rooted in nature but at the same time fragile, before they have completely withered. Nor is there illusion here about the possibility of avoiding the tragic, an unavoidable part of human destiny; at best it can be mitigated -- the clashes of belief, instinct and principle that so mark human social life brought into an imperfect, and always uncertain balance. Although Wilson claims otherwise, this is a profound book of moral and political philosophy, entirely representative of an ingenious mind which has previously produced monumental studies on the criminal mind and on the functioning of bureaucracies. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not wrong when he referred to James Q. Wilson as "our Weber."

But to conclude, beneath the fragmentation and pluralism of religious and moral views we live with daily, a pluralism so eloquently explored of late by Peter Berger, John Gray, and others, and which threatens to tear us asunder, lies that which makes us most human. I shall be forgiven for closing this piece with the moving final paragraph of The Moral Sense. The words are wise and should be remembered. In this most intemperate time, they represent the essential core of what Wilson's temperate book has to teach us:

Mankind's moral sense is not a strong beacon light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one's hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.

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