Are human beings naturally endowed with a conscience? Or is morality artificially acquired through social pressure and instruction? Most people assume that modern science proves the latter. Further, most of our current social policies are based upon this “scientific” view of the sources of morality. In this book, however, James Q. Wilson seeks to reconcile traditional ideas with a range of important empirical research into the sources of human behavior over the last fifty years. Marshalling evidence drawn from diverse scientific disciplines, including animal behavior, anthropology, evolutionary theory, biology, endocrinology, brain science, genetics, primatology, education and psychology, Wilson shows that the facts about the origin and development of moral reasoning are not at odds with traditional views predating Freud, Darwin and Marx. Our basic sense of right and wrong actually does have a biological and behavioral origin. This “moral sense” arises from the infant’s innate sociability, though it must also be nurtured by parental influence. Thus, this book revives ancient traditions of moral and ethical argument that go back to Aristotle, and reunifies the separate streams of philosophical and scientific knowledge that for so long were regarded as unbridgeable.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
James Q. Wilson presents a scholarly compilation of illustrative (if not evidentiary)data commendably drawn from many disciplines across ethnic and cultural boundaries to define the roots and dimensions of our moral self: an innate sense of fairness, empathy, duty and self-discipline that transcends cultures, yet seems enhanced in the arms of a solidly-nurtured family life. Perhaps a little too heavy on principles of social Darwinism, at times Wilson's morality seems epitomized in a well-behaved colony of ants. Readers well versed in moral development will find the discussion enthralling; those of us who are less versed will perhaps be befuddled about what to do with it all. All readers will value The Moral Sense as a rich resource, teeming with meaningful food for thought about what morality is and how we get it. Wilson claims to have written The Moral Sense 'to recover the confidence with which [people] once spoke about virtue and morality' and not 'to make a case for some currently disputed moral question,' when in fact, whether and how we speak of virtue and morality is a currently disputed moral question. Nonetheless, and commendably, Wilson's sophisticated reflection and analysis more or less rise above political rhetoric. Kudos for the proposition that runaway cultural sensitivities must not impede a common moral expectation. Oh, and be forewarned, its compactness makes it a somewhat slow read, albeit a worthwhile one.