(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In The Moral Sense, James Q Wilson attempts to rescue the notion that human beings are inherently moral creatures. While he does not argue for innate moral rules or standards, he does assert the presence of a (nearly) universal moral sense. This moral sense, he argues, is plainly reflected in the judgments passed on conduct and institutions by healthy-minded human beings in all cultures. Drawing on a broad spectrum of biological, psychological, and social science research, Wilson argues that this innate moral sense requires cultivation in a stable social setting, and especially in a secure family. If human beings fail to recognize the existence of this moral sense, Wilson warns, they are also unlikely to nurture it, thus bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy of moral decay.

This book was eagerly anticipated. Portions of it were excerpted before publication in such opinion journals as Public Interest, Commentary, and American Enterprise. There are two reasons for this early attention. First, the book’s topic sparks instant recognition no matter what one’s ideological persuasion. Conservatives, liberals, and various kinds of radicals agree on one point: that Western society and the world at large are suffering from moral decay. Second, Wilson brings a reputation for tough, independent thinking to this important topic. As suggested by the titles of the journals listed above, Wilson is identified with a “neoconservative” approach to current affairs (one that criticizes “liberal” policies on empirical or technical grounds while expressing sympathy for many “liberal” goals). He has, however, done groundbreaking analysis of political organizations and has also served as president of the ideologically diverse American Political Science Association.

Wilson’s best-known work has been on the problem of crime. Though critical of the liberal emphasis on social reform which emerged during the late 1960’s, Wilson also has rejected the knee-jerk “law and order” position of most traditional conservatives. Even when he headed President Ronald Reagan’s special task force on crime, Wilson insisted on a fact-driven approach emphasizing “incapacitation” rather than deterrence or the death penalty.

Wilson attempts to be just as balanced and fact-driven in this work. He begins with an introductory chapter laying out his enterprise: the identification of an innate moral sense, one that requires nurture, as opposed to visions of human nature as entirely self-interested or amorally determined by biology, psychology, history, or culture. In the next four chapters, Wilson lays out the different components of this moral sense as he envisions it. These “sentiments” are sympathy, fairness, self- control, and duty. According to Wilson, these four sentiments are innate in nearly all human beings (the exceptions being psychopaths and some other radically abnormal personality types), though they require nurturing and are subject to many different cultural interpretations. In each of these chapters, Wilson is at pains to root his assertions in everyday experience as well as in such rigorous empirical studies as exist. He raises and attempts to refute likely objections and is careful to point out the tension that exists between the different moral sentiments. He also spends considerable time attempting to clarify the complex relationship between moral sensibility and enlightened self- interest. While one’s moral sense may often reflect one’s best long- or short-term interest, it often, according to Wilson, requires that one take risks and make sacrifices that are irrational from the point of view of self- interest.

In part 2 of the book (chapters 6-9), Wilson discusses the sources of the moral sense. He begins by linking the moral sense to the basic social nature of humankind. According to Wilson, humans’ inclination to make moral judgments about the world and their place in it is intimately related to the fact that they are social animals. More specifically, he argues that the primary source of moral sensibility is the family. While Wilson makes no plea for any particular model of family life, he argues that a nurturing family is crucial to the cultivation of the innate moral sense. Wilson also discusses gender differences relevant to the moral sense, suggesting that women and men tend to differ systematically in their moral orientation. (He is careful to point out that this does not mean that either gender is morally superior.) Wilson closes this section of the book with a discussion of the tension between kinship, the primary source of our moral sense, and universality, the logical extension of moral principles.

Wilson concludes the book with a chapter in which he links the moral sense to the notion of “character” rather than any particular set of rules or a moral code. He also restates the limits of the moral sense...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)