Saturday, March 3, 2012

"If morality is...nothing but convention or artifice...."

James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson died yesterday. He was one of the most distinguished political scientists of our age. It seems as though I have been reading him all of my adult life. He was a neoconservative in the original iteration of the label,* that is, primarily concerned with domestic social policy. Among a great many achievements, an article he co-wrote, "Broken Windows," effected a change in policing and criminal justice that made the urban world much safer.

John Podhoretz, at Commentary where Wilson often published, yesterday called attention to Wilson's "What Is Moral, and How Do We Know It?" An excerpt from early in that essay:
.... I am inclined to think that most people most of the time live lives of ordinary decency as they struggle to raise children, earn a living, and retain the respect of their friends. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that what many intellectuals have come to discredit some people will come to ignore. If morality is thought to be nothing but convention or artifice, then it will occur to those persons who are weakly attached to society and its rules that they are free to act as they wish provided they can get away with it. And if they would have broken the rules anyway, the relativism of our age makes it easier for them to justify their action by the claim that the rules are arbitrary enactments.

I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage. These desires become evident when we think disinterestedly about ourselves or others.

To say that there exists a natural moral sense (or, more accurately, several moral senses) is to say that there are aspects of our moral life that are universal, a statement that serious thinkers from Aristotle to Adam Smith had no trouble in accepting. In this view, cultural diversity, though vast, exotic, and bewildering, is not the whole story. In modern times, historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have sought for scientific evidence by which the existence of such universals could be proved; a few claim to have found it, but most feel that they have not. This has left most scholars skeptical about whether anything of universal significance can be said about our moral life. The box score has been something like this: Relativists 10, Universalists 1.

I am reckless enough to think that many conducting this search have looked in the wrong places for the wrong things because they have sought for universal rules rather than universal dispositions. It would be astonishing if many of the rules by which men lived were everywhere the same, since rules (or customs) reflect the adjustment of moral sensibilities to the realities of economic circumstances, social structures, and family systems. Hence one should not be surprised to find that the great variety of these conditions has produced an equally great variety in the rules by which they are regulated. Even so, some universal rules have been discovered: those against incest, for example, or against homicide in the absence of defined excusing conditions.

To find what is universal about human nature, we must look behind the rules and the circumstances that shape them to discover what fundamental dispositions, if any, animate them all in common. If such universal dispositions exist, we would expect them to be so obvious that travelers would either take them for granted or overlook them in preference to whatever is novel or exotic. .... [more]
Commentary has made available everything they published by James Q. Wilson, beginning in 1966. And here can be found all of the articles appearing in The Public Interest, also beginning in 1966. The most recent, contributing to a symposium: "Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James Q. Wilson", was in the November 2011 Commentary. He refused to be either.

* "The view that we know less than we thought we knew about how to change the human condition came, in time, to be called neoconservatism. Many of the writers [for The Public Interest], myself included, disliked the term because we did not think we were conservative, neo or paleo. (I voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and worked in the latter's presidential campaign.) It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics; that is, people who thought it was hard, though not impossible, to make useful and important changes in public policy." [WSJ, Sept. 21, 2009]