Thinking About Our Common Morality

Continuing interest in James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense prompted Crisis to invite three leading Catholic scholars to comment. Wilson’s defense of Aristotelian virtue using the empirical methods of the social sciences has provoked widely varied responses. We asked each to evaluate Wilson’s contribution in the light of the Catholic moral tradition.


Christopher Wolfe-Marquette University

Does the account of morality in James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense offer any support for the efforts of Catholic moral philosophers and theologians? The answer to that question is an emphatic “yes,” as long as we understand, as Wilson does, that his work is not a substitute for that of moral philosophers and theologians.

Whether something is “of use” will depend on what it is to be used for—so if we want to know whether The Moral Sense will be useful in the effort to help people to be good and happy, we have to ask what our current moral situation is. Wilson’s introduction describes this very well.

Ours is an age of skepticism, in which people have come to doubt their ability to know morality. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves engaged in a “cultural war, a war about values,” and our doubts about moral principles have “amputated our public discourse at the knees.” Wilson wants to “help people recover the confidence with which they speak about virtue and morality.”

So Catholic moral philosophers and theologians have a serious problem when they approach modern men and women who have so many doubts about the possibility of genuine knowledge about what are called “values.” It is difficult to conduct a serious discussion, after all, with anyone who is ambivalent about the very possibility of fruitful discussion. The Moral Sense can help people over that hump.

Wilson shows that “scientific research,” with all the authority that it carries, is on the side of “the existence and power” of morality. Human beings are bound by a common moral sense, that is, “an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily.” He persuasively shows that we have moral senses or feelings, such as sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty, without claiming that these are the only moral senses. These senses are rooted in sources such as human nature, family, gender, and culture.

Wilson is the consummate social scientist. While he handles a variety of philosophical thinkers and issues deftly, he is most at home in the world of social science: its literature, its methods, its conclusions. The Moral Sense brings together a prodigious number of social scientific studies to ground its argument. It is especially this mastery of social science that makes the book a valuable support for moral philosophers and theologians, in ways both positive and negative.

One positive use of social science research is to provide supporting evidence for moral principles arrived at on philosophic or theological grounds. Especially to the extent that moral philosophers propose a eudaimonian ethics (one based especially on the connection of morality and happiness), as many Catholic moral philosophers have, it would be important to study empirically the ways in which different moral views have had good and bad consequences for human well-being.

Another positive use of social science is to ‘flesh out’ some of the mechanisms by which human beings arrive at certain moral conclusions. I don’t think that Wilson would argue that The Moral Sense provides a comprehensive explanation of the “human inclinations” which are an important part of natural law theory. But I think he might rightly suggest that they cast some light on the subject. He does not, in fact, make such a suggestion. But it seems to me that a moral philosopher or theologian might want to use The Moral Sense to reflect on the contributions that biology, including evolutionary biology, psychology, and sociology might make to our understanding of how human beings intuitively feel about certain aspects of morality and how that relates to moral philosophy.

An important negative use of good social science is to prevent moral philosophers and theologians from relying too easily on bad, or inadequate, social science arguments. For example, a moral philosopher who believes that the family is important, and that pornography undermines the family, might be inclined to argue that pornography in contemporary America is a significant factor in the decline of family stability. Perhaps that is true, but good social scientific research will compel him to explain why pornography and a strong family unit seem to be compatible in Japan.

Wilson is generally very wary about drawing implications from social science research in too facile a manner, being perfectly willing to point out the limitations of that research even with respect to the normative views toward which he inclines. In so doing he provides a good model for us, since an inadequate argument often weakens a case more than no argument at all. Still, those with traditional moral ideas can take comfort today from the fact that a great deal of social science evidence lends weight to their cause. The Moral Sense is one particularly fine example.

If there is one criticism I would offer, it is that Wilson seems to bend over backwards to avoid reliance on religion—even from the perspective of social science. For example, Wilson asks his reader to conduct a thought experiment: What would emerge in the case of “people stripped of every shred of their social experiences and set loose in some Arcadian paradise, free to invent ‘culture'”? If they are young boys, he says, perhaps something like Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But if they are men and women “the answer is: something with strange customs, odd dress, and unfamiliar gods, but invariably with familiar systems of infant care, familial obligation, kinship distinctions, and tribal loyalties.” But why are the “unfamiliar gods” placed in the first part of the sentence with “odd dress” instead of in the second half of the sentence? Is not religion a rather universal human reality? It is atheism that is the rarity in human experience, especially at the level of human communities, the overwhelming majority of which have been rooted in some religion. Of course, “religion” covers a multitude of vastly different phenomena, and perhaps this is one reason to be cautious about emphasizing its universality. True, religion has sometimes been the motive or justification for terrible deeds. But none of this should make a social scientist hesitate to observe and try to explain the role of religion in supporting moral feelings.

Wilson makes no claim that this book exhausts the subject. Most importantly, social science cannot be a substitute for philosophy and theology. Its methods provide useful information, which philosophers and theologians ignore only at their peril, but those methods cannot tell the whole truth about man.

Wilson knows this very well. Besides being an outstanding social scientist, he is, not so much a philosopher, but a serious student of philosophy. Moreover, to that exceedingly rare combination, he adds a deep sympathy with traditional morality. For example, in his discussion of family, he notes that often children have been economically valuable to their parents, but that this is not so much the case nowadays. “Happily,” he says, “the predispositions to attachment for which evolution has selected are so powerful as to operate even in the absence of economic incentive.” That Wilson views having children as a good thing is a sign of his commonsense decency. It shows that evolutionary biology and social science research are useful tools for him, but not the overarching framework.

Wilson’s work can and should stimulate philosophers and theologians to view social science not as a natural enemy, but as a potential ally. This is nothing new. Aristotle has always been a model of how empirical study and philosophy support each other. But in the contemporary world, the normative inclinations of many social scientists (whether openly confessed or hidden) have often induced them to put social science in the service of questionable ends, including liberation from traditional moral principles and from natural institutions such as the family. The Moral Sense is therefore a timely reminder that, as the Church has always taught, truth is one. Whether truths be derived from social science or philosophy and theology, their ultimate harmony is guaranteed by the Author of all truth.

Curtis Hancock-Rockhurst College

The only completely satisfactory philosophy, Jacques Maritain tells us, following the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a perennial philosophy: one that is open to truth from anyone, anywhere, and at any time. With this in mind the Catholic intellectual has much to appreciate in James Q. Wilson’s recent book, The Moral Sense. Like the best and the brightest moral thinkers in the Catholic tradition, which he does not claim to represent, Wilson understands that a sound ethics must not be an invention of theory but a reflection on experience. Inspired by this conviction, Wilson relies on decades of social scientific research to supply ample data supporting the claim that human beings have what Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hutcheson, Shaftesbury, and Smith, called a ‘moral sense’: the capacity to discern what is really right and wrong at least in normal, relatively uncomplicated, situations. By this effort, Wilson earns some stripes as a perennial philosopher, for he is attempting to do something analogous to what Aquinas did in the thirteenth-century: to synthesize two apparently incompatible lines of thought. For Aquinas, the challenge was to harmonize Christianity with Aristotle and other vessels of pagan wisdom. For Wilson, it is to show that social scientific research is compatible with the claim that there is an objective morality and that the human mind is adequate to know it. Wilson’s task may be only partly successful, but to that extent it is a bona fide contribution to the perennial philosophy.

On first opening the pages of The Moral Sense, the Catholic intellectual might become suspicious. After all, how can Wilson’s reliance on social science be salutary given that social scientists, perhaps more than any other intellectual group, have done so much to stultify and confuse moral thinking in the twentieth century? This they have done by enthusiastically embracing an assumption that has been axiomatic among the intelligentsia for many decades. I refer to that old Nietzschean blunderbuss, the ‘fact-value distinction,’ which asserts that descriptive accounts of what things are and what people do are not logically relevant to determining what things are good or bad and what people should do. Descriptions (statements of fact) and prescriptions (statements about good and bad) occupy two different realms of human discourse. And, so the argument goes, since descriptions are not logically relevant for prescriptions, there is no point in ever appealing to a fact in the world to furnish an argument for a value claim. Hence, one can never justify one competing moral claim against another. Each is an irreducibly arbitrary preference. People may prefer truth-telling to lying or feeding the poor to starving them, but there is no objective basis that can ever justify preferring truth-telling and feeding the poor. Accordingly, the human mind is wasting its time making a case for ethics. All that remains is social scientific description of what individuals and societies prefer. No evaluation is really possible; hence, relativism, which holds that any ‘value’ belief or practice is as valid as any other, is the only flag left on the philosophical field.

The Catholic philosopher will be relieved to know that Wilson altogether rejects this assumption. He has the savvy to know that without dismissing the fact-value distinction, he is unable to make social scientific research relevant to ethical conclusions. True, cataloguing human preferences tells us nothing about their real value, unless there are good reasons to show that some preferences are better than others. The fact-value distinction begs the question by not allowing that all-important ‘unless.’ In this way it would invalidate a priori any appeal to evidence in support of value judgments. That this is a self-refuting maneuver seems lost on the skeptic, the champion of the fact-value distinction, for presumably his point of view is to be preferred because it has the value of truth! To Wilson’s credit he knows not to step into this miasma where one denies that values have meaning and yet is inspired to commit to value judgments. Consider this bit of nonsense from a popular self-help manual, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, written by the psychiatrist David Burns. The subject under discussion is the meaning of the expression ‘self-worth’:

Essentially, you must acknowledge that human ‘worth’ is just an abstraction; it doesn’t exist. Hence, there is actually no such thing as human worth. Therefore, you cannot have it or fail to have it, and it cannot be measured. Worth is not a ‘thing,’ it is just a global concept. It is so generalized it has no concrete practical meaning. Nor is it a useful and enhancing concept. It is simply self-defeating. It doesn’t do you any good. It only causes suffering and misery. So rid yourself immediately of any claim to being ‘worthy,’ and you’ll never have to measure up again or fear being ‘worthless.’ Realize that ‘worthy’ and ‘worthless’ are just empty concepts when applied to a human being.

Say what he will, I would wager good money that Burns, as a practicing psychiatrist, is committed to the view that a life free of neuroses and ‘cognitive distortions’ is better than a life plagued with them. And I am sure he agrees that Albert Schweitzer’s life is more worthy than Jeffrey Dahmer’s. Refreshingly, Wilson recognizes that the fact-value distinction is a canard that destines people like Burns to utter self-refuting nonsense. Kudos to Wilson for seeing this psycho-babble for what it is and having none of it.

Still, Wilson might want to take stock of his own limitations, for he is himself committed to an assumption that significantly interferes with his aim to make social science and ethics exist in happy harmony. This assumption I call (following Phillip E. Johnson, and others) ‘scientific naturalism,’ the view that human nature is solely explained by physics and Darwinism (matter in motion plus natural selection). It is perfectly understandable why Wilson would presuppose scientific naturalism, since in the intellectual community today, it is taken as dogma. But it is unbecoming of perennial philosophers to let such bias undermine an open inquiry into the truth. Accordingly, I challenge Wilson to re-think his Darwinian suppositions. The very human nature, to which Wilson himself wants to appeal as a foundation for ethics, is not explicable in terms of the materialism to which Darwinism is committed.

Neither rational consciousness nor free-will, the distinctive features of human nature and the necessary conditions for moral responsibility, can be explained on materialist grounds. Reason and free-will seem to require immaterial powers. This criticism exposes a major weakness in Wilson’s text. Wilson plays his naturalist card so often that one might be tempted to characterize The Moral Sense as a Darwinian explanation of the genealogy of ethics. At any rate, the Catholic reader would be advised to appreciate Wilson’s conclusions without assuming that his Darwinian premisses are the only way to reach them. I am not suggesting that there is no place for the evolutionary story in a description of the natural history of human life. But orthodox Darwinism, with its unequivocal commitment to materialism, cannot be the whole story.

The above limitation is a major distraction, but it need not obscure this book’s most valuable contribution: the reminder that being a good human being has less to do with the head and more to do with the heart. This important observation is lost on many who work in the `ethics industry’ today. Of course, this insight is not original to Wilson. He credits Enlightenment philosophers with first developing the insight. While nonetheless appreciating Wilson’s point that the human mind can know right and wrong, the student of the history of ethics will want to protest his exaggerated tribute to the Enlightenment. It is not eighteenth century thinkers but medieval philosophers, perhaps even their ancient ancestors, who first developed this insight. What Wilson calls “the moral sense,” Aquinas called “connatural knowledge,” a kind of informal, non-rational, preconceptual, prephilosophical awareness of values. This important fact, Aquinas believed, explains why so many unschooled people are sometimes more virtuous than herds of ethics professors. For example, some people exercise bravery, honesty, and generosity in their lives without the benefit of formal ethical training—indeed, without the benefit of even knowing the definitions of these terms.

Ethics does not so much teach us right and wrong as it makes explicit and philosophical, what is otherwise implicit and unphilosophical, yet still very operative, in our lives. Accordingly, learning ethics is not the problem. The problem is acting in the way that our hearts call us to act. Wilson’s study would be richer if he benefitted from the deep teachings earlier thinkers brought to this question. Still, in spite of Wilson’s failure to give the Catholic tradition more historical credit, it is delightful to find thinkers working outside that tradition again reaching conclusions in harmony with it. It all goes to show that ethics, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.


Vincent Colapietro-Fordham University

Just as there is a tradition of anti-traditionalism, there is a widespread suspicion of appeals to common sense. So widespread is this suspicion that radical doubt regarding any appeal to common sense is, ironically, a defining feature of what justly might be called contemporary common sense. Our common sense tends to be militantly anti-commonsensical. In general, it is defined by its negations and oppositions, not its affirmations and celebrations; specifically, one of its most thoroughgoing negations concerns recognizing anything common to virtually all human beings. The differences of gender, or class, or ethnicity, are presumed to be more basic than, for example, our shared biological inheritance. We are united only in our sense of being divided from one another! Those who express this suspicion frequently do not feel compelled to justify it, for the legitimacy of such doubt goes without saying, a sure mark of something enjoying the status of commonsensicality. What we “know” today is that there simply is no we. But who is the we who presumes such knowledge? And might not the presumption of such knowledge be pseudo-sophistication?

The Moral Sense is an attack against what is seen by Wilson as the moral nonsense so prevalent in contemporary American culture. Since moral philosophers, psychoanalytic theorists, social scientists and other intellectuals are so often perpetrators of this nonsense, they are frequently the target of Wilson’s criticism. What ought to go without saying must, in a climate of wholesale negation, be articulated and defended. Above all, sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty need to be defended as irreplaceable components of any adequate moral sense. These values are, for Wilson, not optional: to dispense with the cultivation of sympathy and fairness is to disfigure human nature and to undermine the very possibility of humane interactions. The principal burden of The Moral Sense is to establish that human beings possess innate dispositions regarding the care of their offspring, the suffering of fellow members of their species or at least their community, and the desire for affection and approval from others. A striking and very helpful feature of Wilson’s approach is to shift attention from rules and principles to sentiments and dispositions.

These values are, in fact, virtually universal; moreover, they ought to enjoy at least the status they have secured for themselves in the ongoing struggle of human agents to attain personal fulfillment and to maintain social order. They are and ought to be universal human values. They are objectively grounded values.

The extent to which a recovery of our moral sense requires a reconstruction of our cultural history is clearly appreciated by Wilson. For an important part of his case for there being a moral sense shared by virtually all human beings is his historical account of how sound ideas, in many instances traceable to the ancient Greeks and to Aristotle in particular, became unfairly discredited. In order to reclaim these notions, one must construct a convincing narrative of at least key episodes in the complex history of our moral practices, including the theoretical self-understandings of these practices. This is particularly true since Wilson’s appeal to a common human nature is a historically situated appeal, one responsive to contemporary exigencies and, thus, reflective of a historical development. Let us focus here on one recurrent pattern within the moral history of all reflective agents, a pattern especially prominent in modern times.

Wilson himself invites reflection on this pattern when he states that “The idea of autonomous individuals choosing everything—their beliefs and values, their history and traditions, their social forms and family structures—is a vainglorious idea, one that could be invented only by thinkers who felt compelled to construct society out of theories.” There is indeed something vainglorious about this idea. But the ideal of autonomous individuality emerged out of not simply the fantasies of theorists but also the experience of deracinated individuals and also suppressed individuals (i.e., individuals who were uprooted from their folkways and ones who were suppressed by the social forms and family structure of their time and place).

When the process of deracination allowed sufficient freedom from the enforcing agencies of these suppressive forms and structures, some individuals (often the most sensitive and eloquent) dreamed of re-inventing their traditions and, of more immediate personal concern, their very selves. Despite some of their rhetoric, most realized that they were not creating out of whole cloth, but rather imaginatively reconceiving a complex and, in some deep respects, problematic moral inheritance. It was as beings defined by their transformative participation in a distinctive moral tradition that they challenged aspects of their own tradition. But often their challenges were either met with such hostility or issued with such ineptness (or, of course, both) that an irrevocable breach between morals agents and their defining traditions resulted.

Within both religious traditions and other morally authoritative traditions, this pattern has been repeated time and again. Given this, those moral and religious traditions in which alienation and reconciliation, fallenness and forgiveness, are taken with the utmost seriousness and understood in the most nuanced way are the traditions most relevant to the moral crises of late modernity.

The primary value of Wilson’s The Moral Sense is, in my judgment, that this book points to specific ways in which we might become genuinely reconciled to the moral traditions from which so many of us have become progressively alienated, a situation greatly exacerbated by the moral nonsense defended by far too many uprooted intellectuals. The Moral Sense does so by clarifying key notions and assertions, marshaling empirical evidence, and recollecting the wisdom of our ancestors. It also illuminates, most fully in the chapter entitled “The Universal Aspiration,” the context in which such reconciliation becomes nothing less than a moral imperative for individuals seriously interested in making moral sense out of their personal lives.

Though the term piety does not appear in the index and is discussed only obliquely by Wilson, a deep piety toward the sustaining traditions of the moral life informs both his constructive account and his polemical asides. More often than not, the targets of his criticism are identified only in the most elliptical way; their positions are not carefully expounded, but summarily characterized. This means that his polemic against moral philosophers and psychoanalytic theorists is carried out almost entirely in a series of asides. And this often gives the impression of “cheap shots.” This impression is not entirely misleading. Here, then, is another instance in which Wilson fails to exemplify the virtue of fairness he so passionately promotes. In contrast, piety is curiously a virtue evident in his approach but absent from his analysis. So manifest is this virtue that Wilson’s basic orientation might be fairly characterized as a Western Confucianism. In effect, Master Meng and Charles Darwin join hands to revive a deep, abiding piety toward an originally parochial but potentially universal moral outlook, one promising to foster a “community of reasonable order and general decency.”

Along with piety—awe, reverence, mystery, and other distinctively religious sentiments—at least in their full blown, irreducibly religious sense, are ignored. The moral outlook defended by Wilson is, thus, a minimalist one. Might the spiritual hunger arguably underlying the contemporary revival of religious commitment in its multifarious forms, a phenomenon especially manifest among young people today, go unsatiated by such a minimal morality? By failing to address the full spectrum of human sentiments having a moral bearing, might not such an outlook, even if only unwittingly, contribute to the fanaticism so abhorred by Wilson? Just as increasing social chaos all too favorably disposes us to accept tyrannical rule, so increasing spiritual poverty all too powerfully prompts us to be seduced by religious fanaticism. In other words, the Enlightenment might be a more ambiguous and problematic legacy than even Wilson himself acknowledges. Moreover, he might be an insufficiently critical interpreter of this legacy. Even so, his qualified appreciation of Enlightenment ideals, especially the autonomy and dignity of the individual, as expressed in such institutional reforms as consensual marriage and property rights, is valuable for bringing into focus crucial features of an important tributary to what has been, until recently, the dominant moral tradition in Western culture.

Tradition is, as G. K. Chesterton noted, a democracy of the dead, for it effectively grants a say to those no longer living. But, of course, the dead are not around to cast their own vote, to voice their own insights. For this reason, it is crucial to have their proxies present, especially when they can exhibit the harmony between ancient wisdom and contemporary knowledge. But the light of traditional wisdom will not enable us easily to resolve the thorny issues deliberately unaddressed by Wilson in The Moral Sense, issues of specific policy. This is, however, not its most direct purpose. At most, the light of such wisdom will guide us in addressing these issues reasonably and one another humanely. But, like common sense itself, reasonable, civil discourse about emotionally charged issues is all too uncommon. Hence, we owe thanks to any author who makes available the resources for such discourse. We ought to feel gratitude toward any thinker who reminds us of the immediate practical implications of an unjustly discredited but largely recoverable moral legacy. And James Q. Wilson is, despite his occasional anti-intellectualism, such an author.

I am grateful to the contributors to this symposium for taking seriously my book and thinking carefully about it. As is clear from the remarks of Wolfe and Hancock, The Moral Sense has rather little to say about religion, a fact that lends some credence to Hancock’s suggestion that I may be inordinately in the grip of Darwinian materialism and to Wolfe’s complaint that I am unjustifiably hesitant about explaining the role of religion in supporting moral feelings.

This silence reflects my own profound uncertainties about the matter. I am struck by how easy it is for so many people to speak confidently about the relationship between religion and morality, either by declaring that morality requires religion for its support or that morality depends not at all on “superstition.” The assurance with which such views are held and the loudness with which they are uttered lies at the heart of the contemporary culture war. That this war occurs largely outside the academy is a measure, I think, of the extent to which the university and most intellectuals trained by universities regard religious utterances as at best personal customs worthy of polite deference and at worst as political threats requiring implacable resistance.

I have neither view. Religion, broadly defined, is and always has been a universal fact of human life. The secularism that is so evident today is, I think, a new feature of Western culture, the product of a thoroughgoing application, by means of mass higher education and its allied media, of a belief in the sovereignty of unaided reason and a suspicion of religious extremism and persecution. How far this tendency will proceed and to what condition it will move us cannot yet be known. Colapietro, like many other commentators, suggests that the contemporary revival of religious commitment, especially among the young, may signal that the outer limit of the Enlightenment project has been reached. Others have pointed to the growth of support groups, self-help literature, and New Age fads as a sign that a fundamental and ineradicable yearning in human nature has for too long gone unsatisfied. Possibly. I do not know how to judge these developments.

My tentative view on the larger question is this: I know of no way to sustain the proposition that religion is identical to morality or the sole source of it. It would be absurd to say that no one can be moral unless he or she is first religious. The sentiments that dispose us to make moral judgments of others and to recognize that others are making, and often have a right to make, moral judgments about us precede in human development the emergence of anything much in the way of a religious sensibility. Moreover, these sentiments can be, and are, cultivated by and among people who never acquire a capacity for faith. It would make more sense to say that religion exists in part because people are, or have the capacity for, morality. I recall the observation of C. S. Lewis that the great moral teachers, including Jesus, rarely announce any new moral teaching; rather, they reaffirm, in especially compelling ways, an ancient morality that has long been understood but of late has been forgotten. Lewis recalls Dr. Samuel Johnson’s remark that “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

Nor can anyone rightly think that religion is the necessary enforcement of morality. If we act properly only in order to avoid certain punishment, we will be doing the right thing but we will not be acting morally—that is, acting on the basis of some understanding how one ought to act when one is free to choose how to act. That religious injunctions may be useful props to morality is beyond dispute: If a would-be offender believes that his every act and thought is known to a just and efficacious God, then the offender is less likely to transgress. And having acquired the habit of lawabidingness out of an initial fear of punishment, the habit may become self-sustaining such that the right thing is done automatically, without any thought of who might be watching. And so in this manner religion may not only spare us some crimes and indecencies, it may also contribute to the formation of a good character. But other processes can also produce a good character; decent habits may arise from fear of social stigma as much as from fear of divine retribution.

So far what I have said is little more than a paraphrase of the observations of others far wiser than I. I commend in particular the essay on “Religion and the Moral Life” by the late Michael Oakeshott. Now let me add something to which I think Oakeshott alludes with his reference to “religion as the completion of morality.”

A truly moral life requires less the memorization of rules than the acquisition of self-understanding. By self-understanding I mean the developed ability and the steady inclination to examine one’s own thoughts and actions disinterestedly. We govern our passions best when we first see them, as Adam Smith described it, through the eyes of an impartial spectator.

People may act morally out of habit or pretend to be moral out of fear, but they only become fully and autonomously moral when they see themselves, pitilessly, as an all-knowing and disinterested observer would see them. This higher kind of morality is often all that we have to depend on when we are confronted, not with the minor challenges and conformities of daily life or the opportunities for easily detected ill gain, but with the recognition that we are living a life of deceit, self-aggrandizement, and self-indulgence. Being able to face and act on the dark truth about yourself is the ultimate test of human character; it is what distinguishes the person who has overcome temptation from the person who has either never been tempted or has faced temptations that were easily resisted (perhaps because the resistance was seen and praised by others).

The capacity for disinterested self-understanding can come from several sources. It may result from a personal crisis in which one realizes that the alternative to self-command is self-destruction. It may result from acquiring a heightened sensibility from great literature or a moving drama. It may occasionally be the result of psychiatric therapy. In some few people it may be the product of a innate (but, alas, all too rare) disposition for truthful introspection. But for many people—I dare say for vastly more people—it is the result of humility and surrender in the face of transcendence.

Religions that make you aware of the dark forces within you, equip you with the recognition that you need help to manage those forces, supply you with a conviction that such help is available from Somebody or Something provided you submit to Him or It, and lead you to act in accord with natural law (what I called in my book the natural moral sentiments) are great religions. As countless others have observed, viewed in these terms there is not much difference among the great religions.

If one takes this view, one must realize that the act of submission that leads to disinterested self-understanding need not depend on belief in an afterlife (though such a belief can greatly facilitate the submission) nor be linked to a written code of conduct (though the existence of such a code certainly clarifies what the natural law requires). Buddhism teaches the power of “mindfulness” and Confucianism, which is not a religion at all, that of harmony. Though lacking much in the way of awful threats, both exercise a profound grip on the minds of millions.

From this perspective, the problem of secular rationalism may not be so much that it is skeptical of an afterlife or agnostic about God but that it is over-invested in the capacity of reason as a means of understanding man and evaluating morality. The problem with secular rationalism may be less that it is relentlessly secular than that it is overly rationalistic. I must be careful about pressing this criticism, because the West is already overstocked with critics of rationalism; they take the name, variously, of Romantics, Nihilists, Postmodernists, and Deconstructionists. But I believe an argument can be made that the critics of rationalism just listed are united more by their common hostility toward bourgeois life than by a well-conceived argument about the limits of reason. In my view bourgeois life is, for most people, coterminous with the requirements and prospects of ordinary virtue. The bourgeoisie may lack nobility but they possess steadiness; they may be excessively intolerant of harmless forms of deviance but they are also properly intolerant of harmful displays of wickedness.

Having said all this about the limits of reason and the requirements of self-understanding, the reader may wonder how I feel about it. That is a difficult question, and this is not the place to attempt an answer. I am by nature an explainer, not a testifier. But I am aware that there are limits to explanation, nowhere better stated than in the concluding passage of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man:

But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is not the same as to see.

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