- Series: Free Press Paperback
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (November 6, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0684833328
- ISBN-13: 978-0684833323
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 23 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #426,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Moral Sense (Free Press Paperback) Reprint Edition
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This superb work is broken down into three parts: Part One: Sentiments; Part Two: Sources; and Part Three: Character. The parts are broken down respectively into ten chapters entitled: 1. The Moral Sense; 2. Sympathy; 3. Fairness; 4. Self-Control; 5. Duty; 6. The Social Animal; 7. Families; 8. Gender; 9. The Universal Aspiration; and 10. The Moral Sense and Human Character.
The aspect of morality is a very delicate one. As Wilson himself believed that most human beings had a moral sense and tried to live by it. This was “not a strong beacon light”, rather “a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows.” As such he attempted to understand the nature of morality and then defend its use and application, particularly in regard to Western Society as applied to crime and criminology.
Wilson writes on page 250, that "In all three areas (of) families, schools, and entertainment, we have come face to face with a fatally flawed assumption of many Enlightenment thinkers, namely, that autonomous individuals can freely choose, or will, their moral life. Believing that individuals are everything, rights are trumps, and morality is relative to time and place, such thinkers have been led to design laws, practices, and institutions that leave nothing between the state and the individual save choices, contracts, and entitlements. Fourth grade children being told how to use condoms is only one of the more perverse of the results." The abandonment of moral sense and duty becomes more and more apparent on a daily basis.
In short, history has taught us and still shows that "mankind is at the mercy of all tyrants." If we want to live in a society of reasonable order and decency then the creation and subsequent inculcation of a strong morality must be taught and learned. This text supports, and advocates for that structure to be created, although one person's morality may be different from another's. Therefore the morality must be centered on what is best for everyone. Although it does seem redundant and unnecessary, the truth is that many people in the Western World need to hear that rape and murder are inherently and more important, morally, wrong. As such this text is as relevant today and is needed more today than ever before. Five stars!
These social forms of life may all be quite different across the planet because there's lots of room for variation, he reminds us, both because of environmental demands and the stickiness of practices which manifest as social conventions, but, he suggests, there are also certain core similarities among most humans which form the ground on which all social phenomena and institutions stand, i.e., the four capacities/competences he identifies as the basis for social groupings.
From this, he argues that we develop moral structure, alongside the empirical knowledge structure we amass in the course of our lives (based on observable/descriptive information), and that this moral dimension occupies a no less objective role than our empirical knowledge does. It's just that the moral dimension is based on our sentiments, he notes, on our feelings, which he suggests are equivalent to intuitions of the sort that people like G. E. Moore once conceived ethics to be based on. On Wilson's view, we do not develop our moral beliefs by reasoned analysis of what is most utilitarian or most consistent with pure reason, nor by learning and following prescribed rules of behavior for he finds such explanations inadequate when it comes to explaining how we make the judgments we make, which are generally impromptu, spontaneous and expressive of our feelings of the moment. Yet, he notes, we can train and nurture these feelings in different ways and doing this is one of the primary functions of societal structures and institutions which develop as part of particular cultural groupings' behavioral practices. We learn more sophisticated sentiments in this way based on, and through, the particular cultural milieu(s) in which we operate -- these refinements being derived from, and grounded in, the four society-sustaining capacities he initially describes and which form the basis for societal interaction and which most humans have in common (and which can be discerned, to varying degrees, in various other social-oriented species which have mental capacities somewhat akin to our own).
Along the way, he makes the interesting point that Hume actually made a mistake when he claimed that we cannot derive an "ought" claim from an "is" claim. According to Wilson, Hume was not, himself, able to shuck the sort of talk, in his treatise, that depends on just such a derivation. That is, Wilson points out, Hume argues that, while we cannot derive oughts from is's, he then goes on, only a few pages later, to pronounce that the inclination to care for our own children, which is a natural sentiment we feel and cannot divest ourselves of (it's grounded in one of the four social capacities, sympathy for others) implies that we "ought" to act in such ways as to care for our children (that is we ought to form family units, look out for their needs, protect them from harm, teach them what they'll need to know) if and when we have them. This then represents a kind of moral bedrock for our behaviors, grounded in certain innate capacities we have and, in this sense, given the fact of this bedrock, certain "ought" claims follow because it translates into all sorts of cultural-specific conventions about appropriate ways to live, e.g., one should marry in order to form a family unit (rather than abandon the mother -- or father -- of one's children), do the things that fathers and mothers do, when putting together and maintaining a family (like earning a living, treating one's children in ways intended to nurture them such as keeping them fed, sheltered and healthy and educating them to function on their own), avoid behaviors which are destructive to family life such as alcoholism, drug addiction, external sexual activity that would disrupt the family unit, etc. In this fashion, Wilson reasons that humans develop all sorts of culturally-specific practices and expectations which then define our moral universe, the moral dimension of our lives. All sorts of moral prescriptions and proscriptions naturally arise from this basic inclination we have to care about our children and on this view, Hume seems to do just what he says cannot be done: derive "oughts" (as in you ought to do the things necessary to nurture and protect your children) from the fact of having children.
Of course, it's not at all clear that it was this sort of "is to ought" derivation Hume had in mind since he was addressing the notion of logically deriving ought from is in his Treatise (as in, if X is true then it follows by virtue of the meaning of X that you must do Y) rather than a derivation like Wilson's which really says that 'if you are an X with sentiment Y, then you will act in accord with Y whenever that sentiment is triggered.' In this latter case, the "ought" is of the empirical/contingent sort, i.e., the sentiment will entail certain behaviors in the organism because of the way sentiments work. (Yet another kind of "ought" is that of contingencies as in 'if doing X gets you Y, and you want Y, then you ought to do X.' This too, can provide a reason in Wilson's case of having children which might prompt someone to make certain moral choices and not others. But, as with the claim about how sentiments work, it isn't the "is-to-ought" entailment Hume actually rejected.
Of course, if you happen to be one of those rare humans who lack the sentiment of sympathy for one's children, or in whom that sentiment is very weak, there is still no entailment in the logical sense Hume was concerned with. However, on Wilson's view, there are strong enough reasons, from a human cultural perspective at least, to have and cultivate the kinds of sentiment he refers to here, and to encourage others to have such sentiments, and to punish those who lack, or otherwise act to reject, them (and to favor institutions and cultural practices which support them) for disregarding or rejecting such sentiments is destructive of the social life humans require and are (Wilson maintains) genetically inclined to prefer. Hence, Wilson contends, we can argue for such sentiments, in an important sense, and we do so by invoking cultural practices and teachings to cultivate these sentiments in society's members. In this fashion, Wilson proposes a rational basis for moral disputes which can allow us to reach conclusions based on facts. In this, however, Wilson moves away from the classical logical notion of deductive entailment to one characterized by elaborating the implications of commonly shared dispositions (such as wanting to take care of our children).
Wilson is also a little simplistic in his treatment of Kant's categorical imperative since he misses a key aspect of Kant's point that one can ground a moral claim (contra Hume's rejection of is/ought derivations) in the requirements of absolute logical consistency. (If one wishes to be entirely rational, as all truly rational beings will wish to be, on pain of forsaking their claim to rationality, then, Kant argues, one cannot honestly and sincerely choose to be in contradiction with reason by failing to take account of others' interests since theirs are not, in principle, any less compelling than one's own.) But, as Wilson points out, it's certainly questionable whether anyone ever thinks of being rational in the absolute Kantian way (most of us think being rational is just to be reasonable about things, including our own needs and desires). Moreover, as Wilson also notes, Kant's approach is simply too rigid to provide a satisfactory account of moral valuing in real life situations. His prohibition on lying, for instance, would oblige anyone following it, in the absolute sense he espouses, to tell the truth to killers in search of their innocent victims or to honestly divulge a truth to a dying man which would make his last moments more painful than they might otherwise be. None of these examples could be morally avoided if one were to follow a Kantian maxim that lying is absolutely wrong in all cases because it is inconsistent with rationality, even though they run counter to our most obvious and seemingly strongest moral intuitions.
On balance, Wilson offers a good account of moral judgments relying on sociological and psychological study results in a philosophically sophisticated way. My biggest beef with him is his choice of sympathy as a core moral competency rather than the broader and seemingly more basic feature of empathy which must underlie instances of sympathy if sympathy is to sincerely occur in individuals at all. And yet the question posed by his choice of sympathy rather than something more basic like empathy remains the same: Whether treating either as a basic or underlying moral-engendering sentiment merely serves to avoid the issue of grounding moral judgments on innate human features which we have by virtue of evolutionary biology alone rather than because of some independent moral choice we, as human beings with the capacity for moral judgment, make. If it's just biology, then there is some point beyond which our moral judgments cannot go, for how can we ever blame others for lacking what biology has simply omitted to give them -- or praise them for having it? And that capacity, to praise or blame for our virtues or faults, does seem to be the core element in the moral case.