Printer Friendly

The immoral sense.

In the preface of this book James Q. Wilson writes: "By a moral sense I mean an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily (that is, not under duress). By 'ought' I mean an obligation binding on all people similarly situated."[1] I think this is a good initial definition. It brings out two complementary yet seemingly opposed aspects of morally relevant action. On the one hand, such action is free or voluntary in that the agent controls his behavior by his unforced choice. On the other hand, the action is constrained in that the agent is (or regards himself as) bound by a universally applicable kind of obligation. These two aspects are not genuinely opposed insofar as the agent acts autonomously in that he accepts these obligations for himself.

The problems with Professor Wilson's book stem both from the indeterminacy of the criteria of the "moral" as he defines it and from his thesis that "people have a naturally moral sense, a sense that is formed out of the intersection of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences" [2].

To begin with, there is the question of the legitimacy of referring to a moral "sense." To what extent can "senses" be inferred from persons' beliefs or actions? To what extent can such inference avoid a problematic proliferation of "senses"? Is there also a tragic sense, a comic sense, an industrious sense, a lazy sense, a nationalist sense, a cosmopolitan sense, and so forth? Does "sense" do anything more than reduplicate the beliefs and behaviors on which it is based, as "dormitive power" was adduced to explain the workings of opium?

A much greater difficulty arises from the apparent unity that Wilson ascribes to "the" moral sense. Is there only one (kind of) moral sense? The difficulty here is that there may be many different, and opposed, criteria for the "ought" that Wilson puts into his definition of "moral sense." Liberal democrats may have one kind of criterion, Nazis another, Stalinists still a third, and so forth. This plurality is not removed by the universality he attributes to 'ought' when he defines it as "an obligation binding on all persons similarly situated." For, as he points out in criticizing Kant's universalism, there may be different criteria of relevant similarity, that is, of "what constitutes the relevant universe within which a rule is to operate" [193]. Hence, Wilson's definition of "a moral sense" does not circumscribe a unique kind of morality.

It may be helpful here to take account of some general considerations about "morality." First, we must note a distinction between positive and normative conceptions of morality. In general, a morality is a set of rules or directives for actions and institutions, with accompanying attitudes or feelings, especially as these are held to support or uphold what are taken to be the most important values or interests of persons or recipients other than or in addition to the agent. The rules purport to be categorically obligatory in that compliance with them is held to be mandatory for persons regardless of their personal inclinations or their institutional affiliations that are not directly connected with the rules themselves.

Within this general characterization, the positive conception of morality consists in rules or directives that are in fact upheld as categorically obligatory; and this, in turn, on the part of individuals or groups may be a matter of words alone, or of beliefs, or of actions, depending on whether the rules or directives are those that persons say ought to be upheld, or believe ought to be upheld, or do in fact uphold in their own actions as being right or obligatory.

Contrasted with all such positive conceptions of morality is a normative conception. This consists in the moral precepts or rules or principles that are valid and thus ought to be upheld as categorically obligatory. The validity of morality in its normative conception is independent of what persons or groups may contingently say or believe or do. I have elsewhere given a detailed argument for the existence and contents of such a normative conception of morality, so I shall not repeat it here.[2]

Although Wilson does not explicitly recognize this distinction between positive and normative conceptions of morality, he does so implicitly. For example, he devotes several agonized pages to the discussion of infanticide in its bearing on his thesis of the "naturalness" of the moral sense [18-23]. A similar implicit recognition may be found in his discussion of Nazism and other moral evils. The central difficulty here is that his wide-ranging reports of empirical research on the development of moral beliefs and feelings can be shown to apply to the moralities he abhors as well as to those he accepts. Hence, if we are to take seriously his derivation of a "moral sense" from persons' attitudes and actions, the "sense" in question can be attributed to what he regards as immoral as well as to what he regards as morally right. In other words, his analysis upholds the existence of an immoral sense as well as a moral one.

This is, of course, a serious shortcoming of Wilson's discussion. It arises from the fact that his detailed analyses remain fuzzy at crucial points where questions arise concerning the scope of morality, that is, the persons or groups to whom moral considerations of help, non-harm, or other concerns should extend. For example, in his chapter on sympathy as a motive for moral action, he acknowledges that "[t]hroughout much of human history, dissimilar cultures, when thrown into contact with one another, either fought savage wars or practiced cruel slavery" [50]. Similarly, in his chapter on fairness he writes that "culture determines, within broad limits, who is equal to whom. Whether equal effort by kings and commoners, blacks and whites, or men and women should be thought of a constituting equal claims for rewards is very much a matter of custom" [72].

It is difficult to square such true statements with Wilson's basic thesis that "people have a natural moral sense" [2], unless "moral" is given a positivist meaning that encompasses the wide variety of divergent positive moralities. But if, as Wilson seems to intend, "moral" is restricted to the normative morality that he and many of his western contemporaries (including me) regard as morally right, then the "naturalness" of this moral sense is called into serious question. For if it is "natural," then it is presumably universal among all human beings, as against the vast divergences that Wilson faithfully records.

One of the main ways in which he tries to reconcile these divergences with his universalist claims is by focusing on "the sentiments and motives of the people who did" actions like infanticide [21]. He points out that "[f]or the history of infanticide to shed light on the existence of a moral sense, it is essential to know how the parents, and especially the mothers, felt about what they did. What proportion disposed of the baby without remorse as a matter of convenience, and what proportion did so in anguish and out of necessity?" [21]. Wilson's implicit assumption here seems to be that immoral actions like infanticide do not disprove the existence of a natural moral sense if the sentiments and motives of the personswho performed such actions were themselves either morally good or generated by ineluctable external circumstances.

The trouble with this argument is that the "sentiments and motives" on which it focuses can be given interpretations that cover a wide range of positive moralities. For example suppose that the sentiments and motives that led the Nazis to murder Jews had as a central component their desire to purify the human race - a desire that the Nazis themselves may well have regarded as morally good. This would surely not excuse their murderous actions. So the basis that Wilson undertakes to provide for morality in the "moral sense" is insufficiently determinate to exclude vicious immoralities. His arguments thus lead to the thesis that there is an immoral sense as well as a moral one.

The more general difficulty here is that the wide array of empirical materials that Wilson carefully assembles is insufficient to distinguish what is morally right (or normative morality) from what is morally wrong. The beliefs and motivations on which he tries to base the existence of a natural moral sense are too contingent and too varied in their contents to yield a determinate set of moral precepts or requirements. Insofar as morality includes, in its most basic part, a set of requirements that al humans normatively must follow, this "must" cannot be accounted for by the wide variety of contingent beliefs and feelings to which Wilson appeals. In his discussions of evolution he seems to seek out such a necessary basis. But, as I have argued elsewhere,[3] evolutionary theories of morality fail the test of determinacy because what results from the evolutionary process may be morally wrong as well as morally right: it may include aggressive and murderous impulses as well as opposed ones.

Although the relevance of emotions, feelings, and sentiments for morality cannot be denied, it is important to see that if these factors are to be relevant for distinguishing the morally right from the morally wrong, they must be subjected to rational criteria not only of consistency but of necessity. The consideration of necessity enables us to focus on the necessary goods of action that must be acknowledged as such by all humans as actual or prospective rational agents. This acknowledgment provides the basis for claims of rights. The consideration of consistency requires that these rights-claims be extended to all human beings, so that the argument eventuates in the principle of universal and equal human rights. If Wilson had based his search for the basis of normative morality on such rational considerations, his wide-ranging empirical discussions would have been able to avoid the indeterminacy and potential immorality that beset his argument.

NOTES (1) J. Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense xii (1993). All subsequent citation to the text will be enclosed in square brackets.

(2) See my Reason and Morality chs. 1-3 (1978). For briefer versions of the argument, see The Basis and Content of Human Rights in A. Gewirth, Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications 41-67 (1982); and The Epistemology of Human Rights, 1 Soc. Phil. & Pol'y 1-24 (1984).

(3) See my essays The Problem of Specificity in Evolutionary Ethics, 1 Biology and Philosophy 297-305 (1986); How Ethical Is Evolutionary Ethics? Evolutionary Ethics 241-56 (M. Nitecki ed. 1993).

Alan Gewirth is the E.C. Waller Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He has recently completed The Community of Rights, a sequel to his Reason and Morality (University of Chicago, 1978).
COPYRIGHT 1994 Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:James Q. Wilson's 'The Moral Sense'
Author:Gewirth, Alan
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Previous Article:Editor's introduction.
Next Article:Sentiments, evaluations, and claims.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |