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.
In this age of self-gratification and widespread lawlessness, Wilson ( Thinking About Crime ) takes the unfashionable view that a moral sense is part of our basic nature, albeit one that competes with our narrowly defined self-interest. In this lucid, elegant, magisterial and controversial essay, the eminent social scientist, a public policy professor at UCLA, punctures the tenets of neo-Darwinian biologists, cultural relativists, Freudians, behaviorists and anthropologists. Social bonds, he argues, are not entirely a matter of convention or a tool to ensure perpetuation of the species. Instead, our moral faculties--sympathy, fairness, self-control, etc.--grow directly out of our mutual interdependence as social animals. Wilson believes that the moral sense is formed as the child's innate disposition interacts with earliest familial experiences. Self-restraints on appetites are built into the ``primitive'' limbic brain, he stresses. Perhaps his most controversial thesis is that men and women differ in their moral orientation, with men more inclined to emphasize justice and emotional control, while women stress sympathy, caring and cooperation. First serial to Commentary, Crisis, and Public Interest.