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The Moral Sense
by james q. wilson
free press, 300 pages, $22.95

We read books and recommend them for many different reasons. Some are tightly constructed, theoretically persuasive works; others may be conceptually more confusing, yet very rich in their individual parts. James Wilson has, it seems to me, written the second sort of book. Any chapter will stimulate thought and suggest directions for further study, reading, and reflection. Yet, I confess, I am hard pressed to say what the book as a whole is about.

The structure of the book is, on the face of it, quite simple. After an opening chapter discussing what he means by a “moral sense,” Wilson has chapters discussing in anthropological and ethnographic detail four such sentiments: sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. There follow four chapters discussing the sources of these sentiments in our natural sociability, in the family structure, and in the differentiation of gender—and the process by which in the West these sentiments have moved from an application within local communities to larger, potentially universal, communities. A concluding chapter seeks to outline the implications of the work for the development of character in our own time and place.

Wilson begins with his belief that we have lost confidence in our ability to make moral judgments. This loss of confidence stems in part, it appears, from the moral relativism of our time; hence, Wilson suggests that the “moral sense” offers an understanding of human nature in which certain dispositions (though not many moral rules) are universal. The loss of confidence also stems, he suggests, from our tendency to assume that human beings are entirely self-interested, living in a Hobbesian world; hence, Wilson contends that the “moral sense” uncovers “the tug of our better nature.” These are somewhat different moves, but in either case Wilson wants to argue that “most of us have moral sense, but that some of us have tried to talk ourselves out of it.”

Here, as often throughout the book, one isn’t quite sure how to react to the argument. Shall I, reassured that certain moral sentiments are built into human nature, worry less about what might seem to be declining mores—confident that the universally shared moral sense will reassert itself? That would, for Wilson, be too simple a response, since it would assume that nature is everything and culture is nothing. He describes the correct attitude as follows: “We have a moral sense, most people instinctively rely on it even if intellectuals deny it, but it is not always and in every aspect of life strong enough to withstand a persuasive and sustained attack.” Thus, we should worry about the degradations of our cultural life but not without some confidence that nature cannot entirely be denied its role in shaping morality.

At the heart of Wilson’s concern is the family. Indeed, he describes his book as “in part an effort to explain the apparently irrational attachment of family members and to draw from those attachments the argument that they rest on a moral sense and a sketch of the way in which that sense develops.” Our moral sentiments of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and conscientiousness are formed in the relation with our parents. Given what Wilson describes as our natural sociability, these sentiments are innate; however, they appear and are developed only within “the routine intimacies of family life.”

Wilson’s discussion is not without its puzzling features. Because he wants to emphasize that the child is not simply a tabula rasa but is innately disposed to learn to make moral judgments, Wilson appeals strongly to evidence such as studies of identical twins who have been reared apart or of children raised in adoptive families. This evidence, he himself says, “casts doubt on just how much of a difference the family makes in forming the child’s character.” Yet, nature is not everything, nurture plays its part, and Wilson immediately turns to a discussion of parent-child bonding.

If some readers find themselves confused about Wilson’s overarching conceptual claims here, this does not make his discussion any less interesting in its details. Thus, for example, he offers a very engaging discussion of the reasons why a child who learns to be obedient is likely to grow into a self-reliant adult. “The notion that one cannot become an independent, self-assertive adult unless one was allowed to be an independent, self-assertive child is an intellectual fad that careful research has all but destroyed.”

If within the family our moral sense is developed and we acquire sentiments such as sympathy and fairness, why is it that these sentiments are not displayed only toward family members—or, at least, within some kin or ethnic grouping? How is it that we acquire what Wilson terms “the universal aspiration”? Wilson himself calls the expansion of range of our moral sense both “remarkable” and “astonishing,” and he notes that it has not happened in all cultures. Nor does he regard it as natural, and therefore it is a little peculiar to find this aspiration treated as one of the sources of the moral sentiments. Whatever it is, it does not seem to be that. This aspiration reaches its climax in the Enlightenment, but not without centuries of preparation—which gave rise to a sense of individualism fostered by the expansion of commerce and travel, growth of property rights, and the development (at the Church’s urging) of a marriage bond founded in consent of the partners. The result was an Enlightenment legacy to us which, however ambiguous in certain respects, offered the possibility of a universal morality not grounded in particular religious beliefs.

In many of these particulars Wilson’s discussion is interesting, provocative, and an important contribution to contemporary debates. Yet it is not a satisfactory theory of the moral life. Part of the confusion is in what Wilson means by the moral sense. He speaks of it sometimes in the singular and other times in the plural (moral senses). He describes it as “an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act,” as an innate capacity to become a being who makes moral judgments, as a set of habits that suit us for society and that most of us find pleasing, as feelings, as dispositions—and more. He describes his work as a continuation of that begun in the eighteenth century by Hutcheson, Hume, Butler, and Smith. Yet, it is far from clear that they were all doing the same thing. To be sure, there is some common ground. Moral-sense theorists were trying to ground morality in human nature itself without any appeal to God, and they tended (in contrast to Hobbes) to regard human beings as naturally sociable. Perhaps that is enough similarity to establish Wilson as their successor.

If the theoretical underpinnings are a bit obscure, so is the vision of the moral life that emerges. Our moral sentiments may—given proper training—become moral habits, and our character will be the ensemble of those habits. But the moral sentiments may, according to Wilson, give rise to many different habits of behavior—and, hence, there must be different and incompatible visions of the good life. Good character requires “balance” among competing habits of behavior, and this, Wilson finally suggests, is “more an aesthetic than a philosophical matter”—a surprising conclusion from one who has throughout been critical of Richard Rorty’s understanding of the moral life.

This book, so rich in detail, will stimulate and provoke reflection on countless matters. As an ambitious theory of the moral life, however, it finally falls short of what the author apparently intended. That said, The Moral Sense is a book very much worth reading. One hopes that it will have the bracing effect of encouraging the timorous to recognize the necessity and possibility of moral judgment in a culture dangerously bent upon denying both.

Gilbert Meilaender, a regular contributor to First Things, teaches in the Department of Religion at Oberlin College.

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