Culture and the Moral Sense

We all live in a world shaped by the ambiguous legacy of the Enlightenment. That epochal development enlarged the scope of human freedom, prepared our minds for the scientific method, made man the measure of all things, and placed individuality and individual consent front and center on the political stage. By encouraging these views it strengthened the sense of sympathy and fairness…. The worthy desire to replace a world in which people were born, lived, and died in a fixed social slot with a world in which people faced a career open to talents and a political system in which they participated gave rise, as most worthy desires do, to a tendency to carry matters to an extreme….

However extreme its modern formulation, the Enlightenment encouraged sympathy (“we are all brothers under the skin”) and fairness (“I am entitled to the same rewards for a given effort as you”). Here was a great gain for humanity, providing, as it did, a basis for rejecting slavery, ending absolutist rule, encouraging free inquiry, and defending property. But it was a gain that came at a price. The price was not just the multiplication of lawsuits, it was more importantly the challenges to self-control and fidelity posed by radicalized individualism. If rights are all that is important, what will become of responsibilities? If the individual man is the measure of all things, what will become of the family that produces and defines man? If being sympathetic with the plight of distant or less fortunate people is the best test of a decent man, what will become of his duties to those nearest to and most like him? The relationships of parent to child, friend to friend, or comrade to comrade cannot be de-fined in terms of rights. They must be defined in terms of commitments.

In its worst forms, radical individualism is mere self-indulgence; in its best forms it is a life governed by con-science and a cosmopolitan awareness. In its worst forms, extreme communalism is parochial prejudice; in its best forms, it is a life governed by honor and intimate commitments.

Liberal, democratic politics, the politics of a free society, are an impressive — indeed, virtually the only — safeguard against the various tyrannies that political theorists and their enraged acolytes can invent. The fundamental aim of the totalitarian state is the destruction of civil society; only the openness, spontaneity, and confusing hubbub of pluralist, democratic politics can guard against that destruction. Civil society — the nexus of families, groups, neighborhoods, and associations — was neither foreseen nor planned by anyone. Man could no more invent the family system than he could plan an economy. We do not know enough and cannot learn enough to do either. Human nature is knowable only in broad outline; human wants and the best means for satisfying them are not knowable at all by any single mind or single agency. Democratic politics matches, better than any alternative, the diversity and spontaneity of the human spirit.

But democratic politics carries its own risks. It tends to magnify some of the moral senses and mute others…. By magnifying sympathy, democratic politics tends to redefine fairness, attack self-control, and mute fidelity.

… Feelings of duty have animated the revival of a communitarian outlook in intellectual discourse that is at-tempting to carve out a place for the idea of responsibility in a nation suffused with rights…. The best of these writings give philosophical voice to the yearnings of ordinary folk who wish to preserve their liberties while reclaiming their vision of a decent community, one in which the moral senses will become as evident in public as they now are in private life.

Those aspects of modern life that have stimulated these arguments about community are well known. The contemporary legal system views people as autonomous individuals endowed with rights and entering into real or implied contracts. The liberalization of laws pertaining to marriage and divorce arose out of just such a view. Marriage, once a sacrament, has become in the eyes of the law a contract that is easily negotiated, renegotiated, or rescinded. Within a few years, no-fault divorce on demand became possible, after millennia in which such an idea would have been unthinkable. It is now easier to renounce a marriage than a mortgage; at least the former occurs much more frequently than the latter. Half of all divorced fathers rarely see their children, and most pay no child support. We can no longer agree even on what constitutes a family. Husbands and wives? Heterosexual lovers? Homosexual lovers? Any two people sharing living quarters? It is not necessary to accept some traditional view of ruling husbands and subservient wives in order to realize how misdirected much of this discussion is. A family is not an association of independent people; it is a human commitment designed to make possible the rearing of moral and healthy children. Governments care — or ought to care — about families for this reason, and scarcely for any other.

We are also convulsed by a debate over whether our schools should teach morality. Much of that debate is as misguided as the debate over families, because it is based on a misunderstanding of the sources of morality. Some conservatives argue that the schools should impress upon their pupils moral maxims; some liberals argue that, at most, the schools should clarify the “value” choices the pupils might want to make. But if the argument of this book is correct, children do not learn morality by learning maxims or clarifying values. They enhance their natural sentiments by being regularly induced by families, friends, and institutions to behave in accord with the most obvious standards of right conduct — fair dealing, reasonable self-control, and personal honesty. 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. A school reinforces the better moral nature of a pupil to the extent it insists on the habitual performance of duties, including the duty to deal fairly with others, to discharge one’s own responsibilities, and to defer the satisfaction of immediate and base motives in favor of more distant and nobler ones.

Many of us worry about the effects of the mass media, and especially of prolonged television viewing, on the character of our young people. But often we state the issue too narrowly, as when we complain that violent scenes on television produce violent behavior among its viewers. The former may cause the latter under some circumstances; the evidence I have seen suggests that the causal connection is weak, uncertain, and explains rather little of the total level of violence in society. The real problem with prolonged television viewing is the same as the problem with any form of human isolation: it cuts the person off from those social relationships on which our moral nature in large part depends. As the psychiatrist George Ainslie writes, “the mass media [in heavy doses] impoverish a society in the same way as drugs and other addictions, by draining away more attention than they return.” Passive, individual entertainment, whether in a drugged stupor, in a video arcade, or before an endlessly running TV screen, leads to self-absorption, and self-absorption in extreme doses is the enemy of moral competence, especially that form of competence that depends on our controlling our impulses.

In all three areas — families, schools, and entertainment — we have come face to face with a fatally flawed assumption of many Enlightenment thinkers, namely, that autonomous individuals can freely choose, or will, their moral life. Believing that individuals are everything, rights are trumps, and morality is relative to time and place, such thinkers have been led to design laws, practices, and institutions that leave nothing between the state and the individual save choices, contracts, and entitlements. Fourth-grade children being told how to use condoms is only one of the more perverse of the results.

… Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.


James Quinn Wilson (1931 – 2012) was an American academic, political scientist, and an authority on public administration. A Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College, he was a co-author of the 1982 article introducing the broken windows theory.

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