114 The Moral Sense

James Q. Wilson, a UCLA professor, hopes to “help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality” (p. vii) by establishing a form of “natural law” ethics in The Moral Sense (New York: The Free Press, c. 1993). This is one of the more frequently-referenced ethical treatises of the past decade, and Wilson roots his case (almost exactly as C.S. Lewis had done 50 years earlier in Mere Christianity) in the fact that ordinary people routinely refer to morality, implicitly assuming its reality. He declares that everyone has a “moral sense” even though many seek to evade it. Avant-garde intellectuals such as Richard Rorty may win fame and fortune by touting “tolerance” and pretending that “everything is relative,” but Wilson calls such moves barbaric!

In fact, everyone distinguishes right from wrong. Everyone has a moral sense just as surely as he has a sense of touch or sight. Unlike most advocates of “natural law,” who root their position in a theistic metaphysics, Wilson is thoroughly naturalistic in his worldview, confident that an amoral process, “naturalistic evolution,” has somehow instilled it. Yet unlike most naturalistic thinkers who popularize a “cultural relativism” which encourages ethical relativism, Wilson consults the best scholarly literature– fact-filled anthropological and sociological studies which seek objective truth. Here he finds universal absolutes. Murder, for example, has always been condemned by everyone everywhere. So has incest. Allegedly “primitive” peoples often have deeply-held convictions concerning parental obligations which are identical to those held by highly-educated moderns. Children should be loved and cared for.

Unlike virtually all “natural law” advocates, however, Wilson locates ethical absolutes in human sentiment rather than any eternal law or transcendent reality. He openly sides with David Hume and Adam Smith–18th century advocates of an emotivist source for ethics. We cannot know what we should do, but we feel a certain bond with others. These feelings are derived from the social ties established with our parents and extended to others. The sentiments he thinks universal and absolute are four: sympathy; fairness; self-control; duty. Wilson’s “sentiments,” interestingly enough, rather resemble the “cardinal virtues” of the Christian tradition: prudence; justice; temperance; courage.

Growing up, as Adam Smith said, we want, “not only to be loved, but to be lovely” (p. 33). From our earliest hours, we want to be nurtured and rightly related to those near and dear us. We instinctively care for those who care for us. As we mature, we extend that care, that sympathy–that “feeling with”–to increasingly wider circles of people. Our environment certainly helps shape our sympathies. Folks in small towns more readily reach out to others than do city folks. Women usually help more readily than men. But everyone, Wilson, sympathizes with others and (to one degree or another) wants to help them.

So too with fairness! “Perhaps the first moral judgment uttered by a young child is, ‘That’s not fair!'” (p. 55). From that moment on, people meticulously keep score and weigh balances, demanding they be treated fairly. Equity (not to be confused equality), reciprocity, and impartiality blend together and constitute our understanding of what’s fair. (Charles Darwin described it all in terms of social instincts, programmed by evolution into species such as ours–thereby explaining it sufficiently for Wilson.)

Self-control also validates the moral sense. Aristotle saw it, naming it temperance, and it’s still essential! Children must learn to delay gratification if they become successful adults, so parents and cultural institutions rightly encourage self-control. “It is a remarkable characteristic of human society that most of the things that are best for us–that is, most likely to produce genuine and enduring happiness– require us to forgo some immediate pleasure” (p. 81). Finally, there’s duty, “the disposition to honor obligations even without hope of reward or fear of punishment” (p. 100). Fidelity! Rightly reared, we ultimately “acquire the disposition to judge our own behavior through the eyes of a disinterested spectator, what Adam Smith called ‘the man within the breast'” (p. 108). Inmates in Nazi concentration camps, rather than descending to a dog-eat-dog code of behavior, often risked much to keep their commitments. In Auschwitz, many of them observed this rule: “‘Do not harm your neighbor and, if at all possible, save him.’ The result was nothing grand, just ‘small, stubborn, and laughable daily heroism in the face of misery'” (p. 114). Kant’s deonto- logical ethics, the embodiment of the Enlightenment Wilson lauds, clearly finds affirmation at this point.

Having described four aspects of the moral sense, Wilson then turns, in the second part of his treatise, to its “sources.” He argues, with Aristotle, that man is a social animal. Consequently, he is socialized into certain forms of behavior which inculcate the virtues Wilson considers universal. Our prosocial behavior is simply instinctive–as much a part of our being as our languaging propensity. So we form families. Strong, healthy bonds between children and parents enable the children to develop a proper moral sense. This means mothers and fathers must marry and stay married, giving their children good guidance. Since men are generally more aggressive and less nurturing, “much less amenable to socialization than women” (p. 165), social controls must be instituted to corral and socialize them.

“A culture that does not succeed in inducing its males to care for their offspring,” Wilson says, “not only produce children that lack adequate care but also creates an environment that rewards predatory sexuality” (p. 175). Divorce and the dissolution of the family should alarm us. Boys especially need the strong hand of a father, for “the presence of a decent father helps a male child learn to control aggression; his absence impedes it” (p. 178). Wilson dismisses all utopian proposals (from Plato to the present) which discount parents’ importance in rearing children. Careful studies of Israel’s collective farms–the kibbutzes–reveal the impossibility of creating a classless, egalitarian society without sexual distinctions. Nature will have her way! Truly matriarchal societies have never existed, nor will they. Families need fathers. Without them mothers and children fail to function well.

Having described and explained, to his satisfaction, man’s moral sense, Wilson then proposes that we rely on it to develop good character. Given the nature of human nature, he insists we can develop good humans. “A proper understanding of human nature can rarely provide us with rules for action, but it can supply what Aristotle intended: a grasp of what is good in human life and a rough ranking of those goods” (p. 237). Learning good habits, the virtues, cultivates character. “A moral life is perfected by practice more than by precept; children are not taught so much as habituated. In this sense the schools inevitably teach morality, whether they intend to or not, by such behavior as they reward or punish” (p. 249).


Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in Legislating Morality: Is It Wise? Is It Legal? Is It Possible? (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, c. 1998) take an oft-trite statement–“you can’t legislate morality”–and argue that indeed you must. Their thesis is straight forward and twofold: “(1) Legislating morality is literally unavoidable (morality is always legislated), and (2) Americans should legislate the morality common to us all–the one expressed in our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and, until recently, the laws of our land and decisions of the Supreme Court” (p. 8).

First, the authors ask if such legislation is constitutional. Examining foundational documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, demonstrates that Founding Fathers such as Jefferson assumed that by nature all men have unalienable rights such as life and liberty which should be legally secured. Unalienable rights are “derived from the Moral Law–the law not everyone obeys, but the law by which everyone expects to be treated” (p. 20). Interestingly enough, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. inscribes these words of Jefferson: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” (p. 115). Various constitutional amendments, including The Bill of Rights and Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, clearly enforced moral convictions with the weight of law. Significantly, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” insisted: “We have staked the whole future of American Civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions . . . upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves, according to the Ten Commandments of God” (p. 90).

So the real question’s not whether or not morality will be legislated–the real question is whose morality will be made law! More importantly: will the morality mandated rest upon parochial preferences or overarching absolutes? When zealous folks try to legislate such things as dress codes or the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, difficulties ensue. But when the weight of the state stands opposed to murder or child abuse, few protest. Certainly you cannot change people’s hearts by crafting laws. But you can encourage or discourage people’s behavior. As Martin Luther King, Jr., quipped: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me. But it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important” (p. 23).

Beyond defending the right to legislate morality, uncontroversial when dealing with such things as murder, the authors tackle some tough issues–homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia. Virtually all civilized peoples in the past condemned homosexuality as immoral. Geisler and Turek explain “why homosexual acts violate the Moral Law.” First, anatomical details, indicating “organ function and reproduction,” show that sodomy is unnatural. Second, the tragic consequences, most notably the astonishingly abbreviated life expectancy of active gay men, reveals its violation of the natural order. Third, that many involved in homosexual activities struggle with a lifetime of guilt indicates they act counter to conscience. Consequently, they argue, sodomy should be outlawed.

Turning to abortion, Judge Robert Bork summed it up: “Convenience is becoming the theme of our culture” (p. 153). Biologists know that life begins at conception, so there’s no reason to doubt that the unborn baby is a human being. Yet in this nation “Unborn eagles are protected by law. Unborn humans are not” (p. 174). Laws drafted to protect the life of the unborn child have been routinely invalidated by the Supreme Court. “Any country that accepts abortion,” said Mother Teresa, “is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want” (p. 177). She should have the “last word,” the authors suggest. And if we’d listen to Mother Teresa we’d outlaw abortion.

Euthanasia, like abortion, disposes of people who are unwanted by other people. Joseph Fletcher, author of Situation Ethics, accurately noted: “Abortion is prenatal euthanasia, and euthanasia is post-natal infanticide” (p. 181). Activists like Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, declare that the terminally ill have a “duty to die” in order to spare the rest of any anguish. “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way” (p. 179) to make the world conform to Lamm’s design. Standing strong against the Lamms and Kevorkians of the world, “candidates” for euthanasia such as Joni Eareckson Tada resolutely call us to defend folks such as herself. “We are now accepting a dangerous premise: that life lived in pain or in a wheelchair is not worth living, that you are better dead than disabled. . . . Instead of making it easier for people to die, let’s make it easier for them to live” (p. 197).

Having surveyed the scene and built their case, Geisler and Turek suggest ways for readers to join in the important task of legislating morality. Thinking clearly, arguing charitably, acting boldly, voting conscientiously, will help us fulfill our calling as citizens in this republic.


Textbooks rarely remain relevant for more than a decade. Nor do they generally have value apart from a classroom. An exception to this is Austin Fagothey’s Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice ( 2d. ed.; Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 2000). First written 50 years ago, it explains and applies the teachings of Aristotle and Aquinas–the philosophia perennis–and in so doing achieves a certain timelessness. Reading the book, independently of any classroom, provides one a masterful course in ethics. Fagothey begins with this guiding assumption: “There must be a right way and a wrong way of living, just as there is of hunting, fishing, and the rest; and the right way of living is the good life” (p. 19). By nature we’re designed to eat and drink; eating Nachos and drinking Pepsi make us “happy.” By nature we’re designed to attain goodness; being good makes us “happy.” To Aristotle and Thomas this roots us in an absolutist ethic. There’s only one end for which we are designed–and everyone is, by nature, oriented toward that same end. Once we realize and accept this, we can rationally do what’s truly good for us.

Various ends have been proposed. Some pursue goods of fortune such as wealth and power, which are below us. Things once possessed, of course, almost immediately lose their luster. Other folks (amply evident in our therapeutic culture) seek human goods–health, knowledge, pleasure, self-realization–which allegedly “satisfy” us. Inevitably, however, we’re never quite happy with ourselves, even when fully self-actualized. Finally, there are those who say only higher goods–superior realms of reality or God–finally satisfy man’s soul. Fagothey, of course, as a devout member of the Society of Jesus, argues we’re designed for God and nothing else is finally “good” for us.

Now the notion that we have an assigned end offends our apostlels of “relativism.” But “Relativism is as old as Protagoras the Sophist with his motto, ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ and as new as John Dewey with his slogan, ‘We learn by doing.’ It appeals especially to our day with its conviction that evolution is a fact but we do not know toward what we are evolving” (p. 36). Relativism is a childish philosophy, seeking to evade any fixed boundaries in order to enjoy the pleasures of the moment, taking “wandering itself for his last end by the very fact that he seeks nothing beyond” (p. 39).

Fagothey urges us to leave behind childish things, including childish ethics, and discover how we should actually live. We must intend the right end, consent to the right means to attain it, and do what’s necessary to move thereto. All this assumes we’re free moral agents, possessing an immortal soul, deriving our existence from an eternally existent God, thus capable of understanding truth and deciding to pursue it. This leads us to the “natural law” tradition exemplified by Thomas, who said: “The natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (p. 173). Thus, Thomas says: “The precepts of the natural law are to the practical reason what the first principles of demonstrations are to the speculative reason, because both are self-evident principles.” We intuitively apprehend “being, the understanding of which is included in all things whatsoever a man apprehends.” So we know that the same thing cannot both be and not-be. That’s the principle of non-contradiction. We apprehend good, with the practical reason, in the same way–and as absolutely–as we apprehend being with the speculative reason.

“Consequently,” St Thomas says, “the first principle in the practical reason is one founded on the nature of good, namely, that good is that which all things seek after. Hence this is the first precept of law, that good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided” (p. 179). With this foundation, Fagothey addresses a multitude of issues which are forever central to the discipline of ethics. Rights and obligations gain clarity. We’re obliged, for example, to offer God the worship due him if we’re ethical persons! “By divine worship man gives to God the reverence, service, and love that is God’s due; thus divine worship is the duty that man owes to God” (p. 265). This goes for societies as well as individuals. A truly good society, in its laws and practices, owes God adoration and allegiance.

Man too has rights–rights to life, liberty, property–derived from the Natural Law. We must defend ourselves and others from those who would unjustly take persons’ lives. This leads us to oppose abortion and euthanasia. We one owe one another truthful words, justice, secure titles to property, honorable contracts, fair prices for goods and just wages for labor. In dealing with these, a many other issues, Fagothey provides clear definitions and helpful distinctions. He explains, for example, how the same principle which made “usury” immoral to Aristotle and Aquinas now allows for reasonable interest on investments simply because economic systems have radically changed. Right and Reason includes helpful footnotes, relevant readings for each of the 35 chapters, and a lengthy bibliography. It’s a text and a reference source worth adding to one’s library!

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