Summary of "The Moral Sense"

Summary of

The Moral Sense

by James Q. Wilson

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: James Q. Wilson. The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press, 1993, 313 pp.

The Moral Sense seeks to identify a shared human moral sense, and to understand the social, biological, and evolutionary origins of that moral sense. Wilson argues against the view that morality is entirely determined by culture.

The Moral Sense will be of interest to those who seek to identify a common moral ground. This work is divided into ten chapters in three parts. Chapter One introduces the moral sense. Part One discusses specific moral sentiments. Part Two discusses the sources of human morality. Part Three concludes this work with a discussion of moral sense and human character.

Chapter One makes the argument that humans share a common moral sense. Wilson describes moral sense as, "an intuitively or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily." The relation between moral sense and the social order, kinship structures and natural selection are sketched here, to be taken up in more detail in Part Two. This chapter also confronts the issue of cultural relativism.

Part One explores four examples of shared moral sense: sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. Chapter Four focuses on sympathy. Our sense of sympathy serves as both a motivation and a standard for moral judgment. Wilson discusses the relation between sympathy and altruism, and suggests that sympathy may be a key to understanding the evolutionary basis for altruism. Discussions of the sources of the sympathetic sense, the effect of similarity on sympathy, and the relation between sympathy, responsibility and authority follow.

Chapter Five discusses fairness. Our sense of fairness is grounded in our natural sociability. Wilson explores three common senses of fairness: fairness as equity, as reciprocity, and as impartiality. The cultural and evolutionary origins of the sense of fairness are sketched briefly. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the implications of fairness for the distribution of property; contrary to much political theory, our common sense of fairness does not require equal distribution.

Chapter Six explores our sense of self-control. Self-control is the ability to forgo immediate desires in order at secure future desires. Rules of etiquette are described as a way of testing for and demonstrating this ability. The biological and environmental sources of self-control are sketched, and the learning process is described. This chapter also considers the moral status of addiction.

Chapter Seven concludes part one with a discussion of duty. To be dutiful is to be faithful to one's obligations. The sense of duty is related to the conscience. The social, biological and evolutionary sources of conscience are described. The chapter concludes by considering the phenomena of duty under conditions of near isolation.

Part Two investigates in more depth the origins of our moral habits and moral sense. Chapter Six describes human as social animals, and explores the development and evolutionary origins of human sociability. Chapter Seven discusses the role of the family in children's development of a sense of moral rules and principles. The importance of bonding and training is explained. This chapter ends with a discussion of the effect of troubled families on the moral development of children. Chapter Eight discusses moral differences between the genders. Different moral sensitivities are exhibited by each gender. The evolutionary and cultural origins of these differences are traced, and the difficulties associated with socializing males are explored. Chapter Nine describes the aspiration to universality which characterizes much modern moral thought, that is, the belief that "all people, and not just one's own kind, are entitled to fair treatment." Wilson seeks an explanation for this recent and radical development in early Judeo-Christian religion, in the western development of consensual marriage, and in the Enlightenment increase in travel and commerce in Europe, and the rise of private property. This chapter concludes with an evaluation of the "ambiguous legacy" of the Enlightenment period.

Part Three, chapter Ten, draws upon these discussion to offer a description of human nature, and to argue for the importance of investigating our human nature. Wilson says, "thinking seriously about the kind of animals we are will help us understand our persistent but fragile disposition to make moral judgments and the aspects of human relations that must be cultivated if that disposition is to be protected and nurtured."

The Moral Sense draws on a wide range of fields, from biology to philosophy, to argue that humans have an innate moral sense.