Wednesday, September 1, 1993

Book Review: The Moral Sense

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

James Q. Wilson
The Moral Sense
The Free Press, New York, 1993.

“If man is infinitely malleable, he is much at risk from the various despotisms of this world.” This statement, occurring near the end of The Moral Sense, might just as well have served as its preamble. The notion that humanity is infinitely malleable, that we come equipped with nothing that might serve as an inherent counterweight to tyranny, is one James Wilson, former head of Harvard’s government department, strives to disprove.

It was, in part, a similar desire to resist the various forms of twentieth-century totalitarianism that led Noam Chomsky to argue we are not blank slates upon which the masters can choose to inscribe whatever they like. In particular, we are born with elements of grammar that our otherwise vastly dissimilar languages are all found to obey. The implications of deep grammar are profoundly political. We can neither be completely erased nor completely rewritten. We can be suppressed but in the end the tyrants will be frustrated to discover we cannot be remade.

In The Moral Sense, Wilson attempts to do for morality what Chomsky did for language. He wants to demonstrate it is universal and intrinsic; that we are as predisposed to moral judgment as we are to speech; that, indeed, we learn the rudiments of morality at roughly the same time we learn to pronounce our first words. And, as with languages, there are rules all cultures seem to respect. Random homicide, for example, is never approved, whereas the link between mother and child asserts itself in one way or another everywhere. So widespread are moral sentiments that even the worst transgressors feel a need to justify their crimes.

The reader may feel much of this is too obvious to be burdened by a book-length proof. Wilson’s point is that we have allowed what once was obvious to become obscure. In his view the intellectuals are much to blame. Freud reduced morality to a matter of repression; Marx saw it as no more than a function of class and the guardian of privilege. Then along came moral relativism which, in the name of global multi-culturalism, made us wonder whether we have a right, for example, to condemn human sacrifice. It’s not only that we can no longer tell right from wrong without a scorecard, it’s that we are no longer sure the distinction exists at all.

Trying to free us from what he sees as the paralysis of relativism, Wilson argues that although morals of some kind are universal, not all moralities are created equal. Western morality is privileged with respect to the others. Only in the Western Enlightenment did the notion of universal rights appear. Other ethical systems recognize rights within the family, the clan, at most the nation. Only in the West was morality stretched, at least in principle, to include the rights of humanity as a whole.

Wilson is good at probing the weak points of relativism: If you can’t bring yourself to judge witchcraft or human sacrifice, he asks, what can you judge? By what right will you then be able to condemn the Ku Klux Klan?

Unfortunately, his argument for the superiority of Western mores is so shoddy as to be, well, demoralizing. For example, he praises the West for having been the first culture to arrive at a consensus condemning slavery, but neglects even to mention the West’s role in the most massive and degrading slave trade the world has ever known.

Wilson’s reading of the western tradition is stubbornly skewed toward the bright side; John Locke and Immanual Kant, for example — intellectuals, incidentally, of whom he approves — get a lot more playing time than Auschwitz. And propelled by the machinery of his own argument, Wilson treats the Holocaust in a rather facile fashion: As the exception proves the rule, he argues, does not the consensus that Auschwitz was abominable prove that in the end we are moral beings?

The Moral Sense aspires to be a synthesis but is more of a hodgepodge, with controversial if not discredited materials from the social sciences thrown together as if they were fact. Wilson asserts there are genes not only for timidity but — will pseudo-science never cease? — for criminality — “especially high rates of adult theft.” One is forced to wonder if further probing into dna will turn up the nasty genes that lead to the illegal U turn or to parking in a loading zone. The argument for an inherited moral sense is in no way enhanced if requires us to believe that we are felons at birth or that our arrest records are pre-recorded in our genes.

The Moral Sense is not without humor, insight, and even poignancy. The author’s appreciation of morality rises at times to a kind of poetry as when he describes it as “a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology.”

But by the end of the book Wilson has committed a moral breach of his own, breaking a promise to stand above the terms of current political debate. The last chapters put him squarely on the side of family values — as defined by Dan Quayle not Murphy Brown.

He regards the nuclear family and private property as the most trustworthy guarantors of Enlightenment. The Moral Sense might have gained in subtlety had Wilson looked at how private property itself undermines the very values he espouses, how it is not undue respect for the rights of headhunters but the relentless processes of modern society that tear tradition apart.

The book’s major failing, though, is not one of shading but of substance, and flows directly from the author’s effort to prove not just the universality of morality but the superiority of the Western kind. Suppose, after demonstrating the universality of deep grammar, Chomsky had then gone on to argue for the superiority of English over Navaho, French over Swahili, German over Hindi — the Indo-European family of languages over, say, those of Asia. Had Chomsky proceeded in this way, would his theory of languages still be read today?

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