James Q Wilson, May 27, 1931 – March 2, 2012

From Chapter One of Wilson’s book, The Moral Sense, first published in 1993.

Since daily newspapers were first published, they have been filled with accounts of murder and mayhem, or political terror and human atrocities. Differences in religious belief so minor as to be invisible to all but a trained theologian have been the pretext, if not the cause, of unspeakable savageries. Differences in color and even small differences in lineage among people of the same color have precipitated riots, repression, and genocide. The Nazi regime set about to exterminate an entire people and succeeded in murdering six million of them before an invading army put a stop to the methodical horror. Hardly any boundary can be drawn on the earth without it becoming a cause for war. In part of Africa, warlords fight for power and booty while children starve. When riots occur in an American city, many bystanders rush to take advantage of the opportunity for looting. If people have a common morals ensue, there is scarcely any evidence of it in the matters to which journalists—and their readers—pay the greatest attention.

A person who contemplates this endless litany of tragedy and misery would be pardoned for concluding that man is at best a selfish and aggressive animal whose predatory instincts are only partially and occasionally controlled by some combination of powerful institutions and happy accidents. he would agree with the famous observation of Thomas Hobbes that in their natural state men engage in a war of all against all. In this respect they are worse than beasts; whereas the animals of the forest desire only sufficient food and sex, humans seek not merely sufficient but abundant resources. Men strive to outdo one another in every aspect of life, pursuing power and wealth, pride and fame, beyond any reasonable measure.

But before drawing so bleak a conclusion from his daily newspaper, the reader should ask himself why bloodletting and savagery are news. There are two answers. The first is that they are unusual. If daily life were simply a war of all against all, what would be newsworthy would be the occasional outbreak of compassion and decency, self-restraint and fair dealing. Our newspapers would mainly report on parents who sacrificed for their children and people who aided neighbors in distress. Amazed that such things occurred, we would explain them as either rare expressions of a personality quirk or disguised examples of clever self-dealing, The second reason that misery is news is because it is shocking. We recoil in horror at pictures of starving children, death camp victims, and greedy looters. Though in the heat of battle or the embrace of ideology many of us will become indifferent to suffering or inured to bloodshed, in our calm and disinterested moments we discover in ourselves an intuitive and powerful aversion to inhumanity.

This intuition is not simply a cultural artifact or a studied hypocrisy. The argument of this book is that people have a natural moral sense, a sense that is formed out of the interaction of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences. To different degrees among different people, but to some important degree in almost all people, that moral sense shapes human behavior and the judgments people make of the behavior of others.

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