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Re-examining James Wilson’s “The Moral Sense”

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

In this week’s The American, Sally Satel revisits James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense, arguing that scientific research supports Wilson’s argument that the core pillars of morality are innate. While modern biological explanations of human behavior lead some to question the utility of punishment, Satel argues that our natural affinity for virtues means criminal punishment is both essential and appropriate.

In his 1997 book, The Moral Sense, Wilson made the case against moral relativism, arguing that human beings have a natural predisposition to morality. In accordance with Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson’s view of morality, Wilson aimed to “help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality.” Wilson concluded that our moral sense is acquired through evolution and cultivated by society. Wilson’s morality relies on four pillars: sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty.

Surveying the field of developmental psychology, Satel notes that Wilson’s once-controversial theory has largely been confirmed. Dozens of studies suggest that infants can make moral judgments, sorting through “right” and “wrong” even prior to much teaching from their parents. The latest research from NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt echoes Wilson’s earlier work by suggesting that there are six “moral foundations,” very similar to Wilson’s pillars of morality.

Wilson’s theory has recently come under attack from some neuroscientists who question the existence of free will. Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen write that modern neuroscience research proves that “all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control.” While Satel agrees that human beings do not have as much control over their actions as they tend to think, that is not tantamount to human beings being powerless. New discoveries in neuroscience are unlikely to alter our view of morality, Satel suggests:

That babies too young to have absorbed social rules from their parents behave as if guided by these foundations bolsters the view that reciprocity, proportionality, and the impulse to punish violators are so deeply rooted in evolution, psychology, and culture that new neuroscience revelations are unlikely to dislodge them easily, if at all.

Society should reflect the moral values of its citizens, Satel suggests, lest the law lose its authority. We should continue to label certain actions blameworthy because without a system to punish criminals “we forgo precious opportunities to reaffirm the dignity of [criminals’] victims and to inculcate a shared vision of a just society.”