The Morals Sense is an audiobook (and paperback) by James Q Wilson. Nadia May narrates the book with an effective use of prosody which I found engaging. Wilson’s thesis is that there is an innate moral sense that is pervasive and which he supports with evidence throughout. In parts his use of biology to persuade us of underlying principles reminded me of another book with an underlying biological thesis (see review here). Wilson argues that we should look at dispositions rather than universal rules and that the family provides us with the foundations for our moral senses. He covers a significant number of subjects throughout the course of his argument, too many to effectively summarise in a short space. I found his discussion of empathy and sympathy particularly interesting and he argues that sympathy is a fundamental component of our ability to develop morals effectively. He explores many other variables which contribute to these including community values, demographic variables as well as developmental variables.
At one point in the book, Wilson gives an example of the prisoner’s dilemma in which two friends face a tiger. If they face it together then they will overcome the creature but if one or the other runs the other will perish. If they both run then one of them will perish. If they want to survive therefore, the solution is for both of them to stay and fight. However he drops in the statement that they should do so after talking it through with each other in order to anticipate each other’s actions. At this point, it became obvious to me that Chimpanzees had already solved the prisoner’s dilemma without any obvious recourse to language. The clip here demonstrates this. This shows one of the chimpanzees using a branch to fend off the ‘leopard’ while the others in the group do not run away but face the creature also. They did not noticeably communicate with each other beforehand and their ‘supportive’ action suggests either that the chimpanzee-human concestor was able to solve this dilemma also or else that this is a case of convergent evolution. Nevertheless it is only when he frames the classic dilemma in this way that the connection becomes obvious.
Wilson provides us with abundant evidence to suggest that the moral sense is universal in a cultural tour de force. He also delves more deeply into matters with an examination of the insights of philosophers throughout history and encourages the use of a ‘thought experiment’ to further the discussion. Wilson has an extensive knowledge of sociobiology, an interesting thesis and the listener will learn a great deal about human nature after listening to this audiobook.
James Q Wilson. The Moral Sense. Narrated by Nadia May. Blackstone Audio. 2000.
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