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Editor's introduction.

In The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson advances an ambitious synthesis of work undertaken by philosophers, biologists, and social scientists on the foundations of human morality. Wilson outlines his aims in the preface to the book. "This effort," he writes, "is a continuation of work begun by certain eighteenth-century English and Scottish thinkers, notably Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith." Wilson goes on to state that "[w]hat I seek to add to this tradition is a knowledge of what the biological and social sciences have since learned about what [these eighteenth century thinkers! were the first to call the moral sense."

Wilson's comments suggest the two levels at which The Moral Sense should be read. On the one hand, Wilson's book takes on serious issues in moral philosophy and so requires assessment from a philosophical perspective. On the other hand, in drawing on twentieth century empirical studies, one must also ask whether there are broadly-shared moral judgments about the propriety of specific actions. One of the distinctive features of the Scottish moralists (Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith) is that they propounded arguments that not only remain philosophically significant but also continue to provoke empirical questions about the universality of moral assessments. To his credit, Wilson takes both concerns seriously. He writes as a student of "the moral sciences" (a term favored by Hume and Smith), thus trying to bridge contemporary disciplinary divisions between philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and economics.

Wilson defines the moral sense as "an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily (that is, not under duress)." Wilson's definition raises two issues of philosophical significance. The first is what role, if any, he accords to reason in moral judgments. If moral judgments begin and end with an intuition about how one ought to act, then rational debate about the propriety of different courses of action is impossible. Wilson, however, takes the position that moral judgments merely begin with intuitions about what one ought to do. He argues that reason plays a critical role in generalizing moral intuition - in extending judgments beyond the immediate present to persons and situations not encountered. Moreover, Wilson also allows for the possibility that multiple, and conflicting, intuitions are possible about what ought to be done. Thus while he speaks of the moral sense in his title, he elsewhere refers to multiple moral senses and notes the possibility that these can abound in ambiguity and conflict.

The other philosophical issue posed by Wilson's definition is closely related to this. This is the issue of how moral intuitions can be be justified - that is, how someone can arrive at a valid moral judgment about the propriety of a given act. If Wilson believed that moral judgments begin and end with an intuition about how to act, he could then assert that the validity of a moral judgment is established simply by tracing an intuition to its source. However, because Wilson emphasizes that moral intuitions can (and should be) generalized, and because he also concedes the possibility of ambiguity and conflict between intuitions, a more complicated decision procedure is needed in numerous settings to determine how to act. It is not entirely clear what resolution Wilson has in mind for this problem of justification. What does seem clear is that, even within the framework of moral sense theory, some kind of decision procedure is needed to determine when generalizations have properly been drawn from intuitions and how conflicts between intuitions should be resolved.

Wilson's approach to empirical issues is marked by an encyclopedic knowledge of biological and social research relevant to morality. The Scottish moralists wrote prior to the development of evolutionary theory; furthermore, they showed only a modest concern for the influence of culture on individual judgment. Wilson thus devotes a good deal of attention to the work of evolutionary biologists and cultural anthropologists, arguing on the one hand that his conception of a moral sense is compatible with the theory of natural selection and, on the other hand, that moral intuitions, while mediated by culture, are not wholly shaped by it. In attempting to support the latter position, Wilson points to rules against unjustifiable homicide and incest, practices that he claims to be universally condemned. Whether these points sustain his universality hypothesis is another matter. If there are substantial differences among societies' specific rules governing, say, unjustifiable homicide, can it still be said that there is a universal prohibition of this practice? And, in any event, how much variation between rules is permissible before one concludes that a practice is not universal?

These and other issues are addressed by the authors Criminal Justice Ethics invited to consider The Moral Sense. The symposium begins with essays by three philosophers - Alan Gewirth, Gerald Gaus, and Stephen Buckle. It continues with essays by three anthropologists - Robin Fox, Richard Shweder, and Peggy Reeves Sanday. Contributors from the many other disciplines relevant to The Moral Sense come next - Arlene Saxonhouse (political science), Tom Tyler and Wayne Kerstetter (political science), Hans Eysenck (psychiatry), Barry Schwartz (pyschology), Elliot Turiel (education), and Gilbert Geis (criminology). The symposium concludes with Wilson's response to the comments on his book.
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Title Annotation:James Q. Wilson's 'The Moral Sense'
Author:Heffernan, William C.
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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