Moral Sense Among a 'Parliament of Instincts'

December 16, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — ''There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my lif than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.'' -- Jesse Jackson

Washington.--This was the year that America looked in the mirror and blanched. This year the political system moved gingerly toward confronting the question of how public policy can nurture, or injure, character. The ''person of the year,'' emblematic of the dominating public concern, might be a young black male dressed in the regalia of the gang and rap music cultures. And the intellectual event of the year was the publication of James Q. Wilson's ''The Moral Sense.''

It has become the conventional wisdom that there is no #i knowledge, only opinion, about morality, and that human beings have no nature other than their capacity to acquire culture. Mr. Wilson's warning is: We must be careful of what we think we are, lest we become that. By ''scavenging'' (his word) in various sciences, particularly evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology, he concludes that cultural diversity, although vast, not the whole story.

Human nature is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. And the fact that so much about America nowadays, from random savagery to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked.

The development of conscience has been much studied -- Jean Piaget's many hours watching Swiss children playing marbles; studies of altruism in the Holocaust; studies of twins, including those separated at infancy. The studies have produced powerful empirical evidence of a moral sense that is a component of a universal human nature.

A moral sense is the most plausible explanation of much of our behavior. Statecraft always is soulcraft, for better or worse, so the political challenge is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.

Inside every person there is (in Konrad Lorenz's phrase) a ''parliament of instincts.'' The moral sense, says Mr. Wilson, is among the calmer passions; it needs help against its wilder rivals. We have selfish interests, but also the capacity -- and inclination -- to judge disinterestedly, even of our own actions.

Mr. Wilson asks: Could mankind survive if parents had to have the skill, perseverance and good luck sufficient to teach every rule of right conduct the same way they teach multiplication tables? Right conduct is so important that the tendency to it must be rapidly acquired, which suggests that children are biologically disposed to imitate behavior and learn the underlying rules by observation.

Children are intuitive moralists, equipped by nature for making distinctions and rendering judgments. Instincts founded in nature are developed in the family, strengthened by daily habits -- particularly in work -- and reinforced by fears of punishment and social ostracism. We acquire virtues as we acquire crafts, by the practice of them. Above all, the family transforms a child's natural sociability into a moral sense.

Most of the things likely to produce enduring happiness -- education, employment, stable families -- require us to forgo immediate pleasures. What happens when that discipline fails? Look around. Crime used to respond to material circumstances, declining with economic growth. Now it responds to cultural circumstances, to the diminished legitimacy of what are derisively described as ''middle-class values'' -- thrift, industriousness, deferral of gratification.

All parents are parenting against today's culture. But for disadvantaged black parents, and particularly for unmarried mothers, the lack of support from the culture is especially damaging. This is so regardless of how many (mostly white) intellectuals blandly embrace single- parent households as ''alternative family systems.''

''Familial and kin networks,'' Mr. Wilson writes, ''are essential arenas in which sociability becomes sympathy, and self-interest is transformed . . . into duty and fair play.'' A child's moral sense is at risk in a cold, erratic, disorderly family. Mr. Wilson reports that white parents spend, on average, 10 hours per week less time with their children than in 1960, and the decline in parental investment in children has been even steeper among black parents. This, which is partly a product of family disintegration -- absent fathers -- is disastrous for young males, who differ from females in temperament, particularly regarding aggressiveness.

Boys are harder to socialize. In modern society, aggressiveness is no longer an adaptive trait. Civilization is partly an attempt to restrain male aggressiveness, or turn it into appropriate channels. The failure of families, and work experiences, to perform that shaping function has many consequences, including Jesse Jackson's words quoted above.

America's unending cultural war about national self-definition once concerned slavery, temperance, religion. Today it turns on illegitimacy, crime and entertainment. These will be the central subjects of political argument for the foreseeable future, and James Q. Wilson is the foremost explorer of this dark and bloody ground.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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