James Q. Wilson and the Defense of Moral Judgment



By Sally Satel
Thursday, August 8, 2013

Twenty years ago, James Q. Wilson powerfully articulated the idea that humans’ moral sense is innate, not learned.

This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense. Written in a time of creeping moral relativism, Wilson wrote in defense of judgment — and, in particular, of humans’ natural predisposition to form moral assessments.

One purpose of The Moral Sense was, as Wilson put it, “to help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality.” The other goal was to trace the origins of human morality. Summoning an array of anthropological evidence, Wilson elaborated on the idea that our moral sense is innate, acquired not through learning but through evolution. These sentiments do not spring to life fully formed; instead, they are cultivated within family and society. Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had advanced the idea of inborn moral affinity but Wilson enlarged upon it, proposing that the moral sense rested upon four foundational pillars: sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty.

Latest Findings from the Lab

How would Wilson’s argument be evaluated today? In the last 20 years, the field of moral psychology has changed radically, and largely along the lines Wilson laid out. In the 1980s, researchers emphasized moral reasoning and were skeptical of the idea that morality was in part innate. But nowadays, developmental psychologists such as Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn at Yale, who have studied the minds of babies, have identified inborn predilections at a very early age. Through dozens of studies, they have demonstrated the capacity of infants to make certain types of moral judgments, such as distinguishing between actors and circumstances that adults would recognize as good and bad, kind and cruel, equal and unfair. In one series of studies, for example, Bloom and Wynn found that toddlers who watched a puppet show in which one puppet “stole” a ball and another puppet returned the ball to its rightful owner were far more likely to give candy to the “helper” puppet than to the “bad” puppet and also to take candy away from the “bad” puppet.

Wilson has also been largely vindicated on the notion of moral foundations. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, for example, have identified six “moral foundations” that they say are like the innate “taste buds” of the moral sense. They are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Just as people develop their culinary senses within their family and culture, Haidt argues, people develop a particular morality within their families and cultures as well. But whatever variations culture proposes must be consistent with those innate taste buds.

Wilson, recall, named four foundations: sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. Sympathy clearly corresponds with Haidt’s care/harm foundation, which stems from the attachment systems we share with other primates and underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance. Wilson’s fairness matches Haidt’s fairness – the concern can be traced to an evolutionarily preserved process of reciprocal altruism (“you scratch my back,” etc.) which gives rise to ideas of justice, proportionality, and rights. Haidt’s authority/subversion and loyalty/betrayal axes would seem to relate to Wilson’s duty. Self-control, the only one of Wilson’s moral foundations that does not fit neatly into Haidt’s scheme, does, however, have some overlap with Haidt’s sanctity/degradation foundation – that one is partly about treating the body as a temple, and resisting one’s carnal urges.

Controversially, Wilson hypothesized that men and women differ in their moral orientation, with men more inclined to emphasize justice and emotional control and women more likely to express sympathy, caring, and cooperation. When Haidt and his team looked at whether moral sense differed by sex, however, they found only small differences. Yet when they analyzed the data according to ideological affiliations, the differences in moral orientation were striking. Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to value care and fairness most highly, whereas self-identified conservatives tend to value all six of the moral foundations equally. On the other hand, according to a 2009 poll conducted by Gallup, men are 30 percent more likely to say they are Republicans than are women, regardless of age (41 percent versus 32 percent) which supports the pattern that Wilson hypothesized and Haidt discovered.

Wilson’s commitment to the idea of inborn moral substrate is largely consistent with the work of experimental psychologists, yet he was leery of the social implications of biological determinism. As he asked in a 2010 article in National Affairs, will “understanding human behavior at the level of genetics and neurobiology make it unreasonable or impossible to hold people accountable for what they do?” No, he said. And rightly so, in my view.

Biological Explanations of Behavior and Virtue Co-exist

It is only natural that advances in knowledge about the brain would make us think more mechanistically about ourselves. Although we generally think of ourselves as free agents who make choices, a number of prominent scholars claim that we are mistaken. “Our growing knowledge about the brain makes the notions of volition, culpability, and, ultimately, the very premise of the criminal justice system, deeply suspect,” contends Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky. “Progress in understanding the chemical basis of behavior will make it increasingly untenable to retain a belief in the concept of free will,” writes biologist Anthony R. Cashmore.

Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen contend that neuroscience has a special role to play in giving age-old arguments about free will more rhetorical bite. “New neuroscience will affect the way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones,” they write. “[It] can help us see 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,” Greene adds. Other neuroscientists hope to see a general attitude “shift from blame to biology.”

In some instances, such a move may be warranted, but to date, brain-based findings cannot distinguish between criminal impulses that are irresistible and those which are not resisted, difficult as resistance may sometimes be. Indeed, the relationship between brain-based explanations of behavior and what they mean for holding that person responsible is by no means straightforward. To be sure, everyone agrees that people can be held accountable only if they have freedom of choice. But there is a longstanding metaphysical debate about the kind of freedom that is necessary. Some contend that we can be held accountable as long as we are able to engage in conscious deliberation, follow rules, and generally control ourselves. That a long chain of physical causes that are beyond our control lead up to a crime does not undermine the law’s capacity, and duty, to blame and punish.

Others, like Sapolsky, Cashmore, Green, and Cohen, seem to disagree, insisting that our deliberations and decisions do not make us free because they are dictated by neuronal circumstances. They hope that as the general public becomes more familiar with the latest discoveries about the workings of the brain, it will inevitably come to accept
their view on moral agency. In turn, they predict, we’ll be compelled to adopt a strictly utilitarian model of justice dedicated solely to preventing crime through deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.

As Wilson understood, this free-will question remains one of the great conceptual impasses of all time, far beyond the capacity of brain science to resolve. Unless, that is, investigators can show something truly spectacular: that people are not conscious beings whose actions flow from reasons and who are responsive to reason.

True, we do not exert as much conscious control over our actions as we think we do. Every student of the mind, beginning most notably with William James and Sigmund Freud, knows this. But it does not mean we are powerless. Indeed, deliberative reasoning is a crucial aspect of moral psychology, a fact that is too often downplayed in our “Blink-ified” culture.

The belief that discoveries in neuroscience will threaten morality seems unrealistic. After all, the high degree of consensus across cultures regarding the value of proportionate punishment suggests that human intuitions about fairness and justice are deeply entrenched. 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 neuroscientific revelations are unlikely to dislodge them easily, if at all.

This is not because people are immune to change. On the contrary, attitudes can shift over time, and recent history bears this out. Within the last two centuries alone, we have witnessed profound moral transformations, ranging from the abolition of slavery to legal protections against racial and sexual inequality and to the endorsement of same-sex marriage by millions. Yet these milestones of moral progress would not have come about at all but for the universal human hunger for fairness and justice.

By failing to reflect the moral values of the citizenry, which encompass fair punishment, the law would lose some, if not most, of its authority. What’s more, a blameless world would be a very chilly place, inhospitable to the warming sentiments of forgiveness, redemption, and gratitude. In a milieu where no individuals are accountable for their actions, the so-called moral emotions would be unintelligible. If we no longer brand certain actions as blameworthy and punish transgressors in proportion to their crimes, we forgo precious opportunities to reaffirm the dignity of their victims and to inculcate a shared vision of a just society. In the words of Wilson, “if we allow ourselves to think that explaining behavior justifies [them] … virtue then becomes just as meaningless as depravity — a state of affairs in which no society could hope to remain ordered or healthy.”

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