24 Jun 2010

The Moral Sense -- The Review

This 1993 book by James Q. Wilson (author of Bureaucracy) is another tour de force distilling big ideas into a form that easIER to understand. While reading the book, I was reminded of related work by Gregory Clark, Leda Cosmedes & John Tooby, Avner Greif, Douglass North and many others -- most of them probably (in)directly indebted to Wilson for his far-reaching survey of how we think of morality, how that thinking may have arose, and what implications may follow from it. (Wilson makes heavy use of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), so the debt continues to circulate.)

Wilson's main point (as I understand) is that our moral sense is inherited -- something that we are born with, a result of hundreds of generations of natural selection. Wilson points out that the moral sense is not a set of universal rules, but instincts that push us in a direction that we sometimes ignore. And that's Wilson's other point, that we combine these impulses with social rules when deciding when to act and what action to take.

(Wilson heaps a few more shovels of scorn on the notion that Freud and Marx were more than just ideologues. The Nihilists and Existentialists are also put in their place for constructing a castle in the sand. Wilson rightly points out that their assumption that human emotion is a terra nullis for implementing new ideas is rubbish. He would have loved to see that Simone Beauvoir was terribly jealous of the other women Sartre slept with, in contrast with her public "c'est cool avec moi" attitude.)

Wilson begins with an idea that would warm the conservative heart: We have put too much emphasis into moral relativism and discarded too much tradition in the name of self-indulgence, tolerance or -- lest the liberals whinge -- beating a child as a form of discipline. (And this is where I love Wilson's style: he doesn't stick with a well-trod path. He questions everything from first principles, comparing theories and ideas to common sense and observed reality.)

The book is divided into three parts. In Sentiments, Wilson talks about moral feelings that we have. In Sources, he describes how these feelings may have evolved, biologically and socially. In Character, he sums up how we may use moral senses in our contemporary lives.

The four Sentiments are sympathy, fairness, self control and duty. I was interested to see that each of these have been extensively tested by psychologists and economists. Respective examples are Milgrom's 1961 shocker experiment (where people were willing to injure others who failed the test when instructed by an authority figure); the Ultimatum game (where one person proposes how to split $20, and the other person can accept the split or reject it -- leaving both with nothing); the lack of self-control in drug addiction (and social norms that allow one's manners to decay to the point where self-indulgence displaces social obligations); and public goods games (where people interact when deciding how much to contribute to a public account that benefits everyone instead of keeping that contribution, each for themselves; total contribution to the public account makes everyone better off; total abstention leaves them where they started.)

During these chapters, I liked these useful remarks:
  • Children in rural societies are more altruistic and cooperative than their peers in urban places because they live in smaller communities and carry more adult responsibilities.

  • The "invisible handshake" means that prices should not rise until costs do (the topic of many anti-gouging laws). Wilson points out that prices need not fall with costs, since people also equate the resulting higher profits as a reward for possible good management. (Wilson says nothing about the problem of running out of a good, if demand exceeds supply.)

  • People prefer fairness in equity, reciprocation and judgment, but equity is not the same as equality. Equity means that you get paid in proportion to your effort or contribution; equality means that you get paid the same as everyone else. (I have been sloppy with "equity" on the blog and will be more careful.) He also suggests that Rawls' "Veil of Ignorance" is an unrealistic tool for designing social outcomes (i.e., if we were designing a system for wealth distribution and did not know who would get more wealth when the Veil was pulled away, then we'd probably vote that everyone gets the same wealth). I agree with that statement about outcomes, but I still like a Rawlsian view on inputs, i.e., the idea that everyone would face the same incentives and rules BEFORE they went out to earn what they could. In this sense, I agree with equity, not equality. All men are created equal doesn't mean they all end up that way...

  • Manners display to strangers that you have self-control. That's useful if you don't want them to misinterpret your actions as hostile. Wilson also gives a great example, of how women did not cover themselves in small tribes (because everyone knew who was available or not), but them covered themselves in larger groups (to avoid rape). Women are less covered NOW because our social norms have changed, to give women greater control over who gets to mate with them, regardless of how they are dressed.

  • Activists need to distinguish a "sense of duty (which leads people to act on principles) from the love of power (which leads them to manipulate principles)" [p 109].
In Sources, Wilson discusses The Social Animal, Families, Gender, and The Universal Aspiration.
  • The Social Animal begins with the observation that anthropologists and economists are BOTH right. Culture varies from place to place, yet people do pursue their self interests -- within the constraints of culture. Wilson then gets into the nature versus nurture debate, coming out in favor of both.
  • Families goes into child-rearing. Kids do best when their parents are loving, yet firm with rules and discipline. Cold, random-justice parents leave their kids alienated and confused between right and wrong. There's much more about the rise of the nuclear family.
  • Gender points out how weak men are, and how women temper that weakness by choosing who to mate with. From this, men came up with a useful response "the code of the gentleman was the most successful extralegal mechanism ever invented for adopting male behavior to the requirements of modern life" [p 173]. He then contrasted the Hobbesian world of gold rush California (many single men, many murders) with gold rush Appalachia (many Cornish families, much stability).
  • The Universal Aspiration concerns the status of people as equals, entitled to fair treatment. Wilson surveys enlightenment thought, the role of the Catholic Church and debates over slavery here.
In his final chapter, Wilson says that there are certain universal moral truths (one is do not murder without cause; another is that mothers love their children. I enjoyed this second example, as it echoed my own observation -- after five years of travel in 62 countries -- that "people love their kids"). He goes on to say that there is no single universal moral truth. We merely mix and match biological instincts and social norms into a mish-mash of behavior that is, more or less, directed at "doing the right thing." (Wilson reflects on psychopaths early on. Besides saying that they probably do deserve punishment, he also observes how amazing it is that we -- humans -- all DO manage to get along so well. I remind myself of this, each time I get on a strange bus in a strange place with strangers.) He completes his thought with the (un)helpful observation that morality is too intuitive. We can't teach morality through words and rules in the same way as we can't teach poetry with lessons on meter and rhymes.  

Bottom Line: This is an excellent book on a complex and important topic. This book is MUCH better than any textbook on philosophy, culture or religion, but it's still a deep read that requires a lot of concentration. I give it FOUR stars, if only because Wilson's firehose of ideas and information can be overwhelming. Plan accordingly.

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