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BOOK REVIEW : Charting the Dark Side of Enlightenment : THE MORAL SENSE by James Q. Wilson ; The Free Press $22.95, 300 pages


The Enlightenment has always been a mixed bag. The tools it gave us, such as the scientific method, led not just to a cure for polio but to Hiroshima; the individuality it fostered led not just to self-realization and social mobility but to loneliness and loss of community. What had promised to be empowering and inspiring left T. S. Eliot writing of "hollow men" living in a "wasteland" from which, as Sartre complained, there seemed "no exit."

In this feisty and ambitious book, UCLA management and public policy professor James Q. Wilson offers a controversial interpretation of what went wrong.

Essentially, he argues that the Enlightenment persuaded us to place more faith in the "objective" viewpoints of science, law and bureaucracy than in our own subjective intuitions, values and moral sentiments.

These synthetic ways of seeing and responding to the world left us feeling adrift because they were so callow and undiscerning compared to the naturally occurring moral sense that has historically been our worldly anchor.

"A good character, however defined, is not life lived according to a rule," Wilson proposes. "It is a life lived in a balance . . . that is struck without deliberation or reasoned justifications."

Wilson acknowledges that most of us maintain these intuitive, even artistic, balances every day--privately deeming one person virtuous, for instance, and another insincere. But in public, he argues, we are more like scientists: denying our feelings and convictions or denigrating them as merely personal preferences.

Our muscles might tighten when we are in touch with our beliefs, but we doubt "that we have a defensible philosophy or credible conviction that we would want to impose (on others)."

In fact, Wilson asserts, nearly all humans share a basic moral sense that should be used to shape culture and politics, not the other way around. It is available to everyone regardless of nationality or ethnicity, and there is increasing evidence that at least some of it is genetically inherited.

With this premise, Wilson descends the Ivory Tower and enters a fiercely political arena: If he can prove it, then he can refute the Enlightenment philosophy he sees as most destructive: the notion, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz put it, that "there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture."

This notion has validated such political philosophies as cultural relativism (which holds that no one national or ethnic culture can lay claim to being more natural or benign than another) and social welfare spending (which is premised on the assumption that people are led astray more by the vagaries of culture than by the vices of character).

But the notion is most relevant today because of its relationship to "personal responsibility," a key theme in the inaugural addresses of Bill Clinton and Richard Riordan. If we do have a moral sense that transcends cultures, then it becomes permissible for leaders to ask that we heed it. They can do more than regale us with an Epicurean feast of social services; they can ask that we muster enough character to make responsible commitments to one another.

"The freedom (people) want is not unconstrained choice," Wilson writes; "it is rather the opportunity to express themselves, enrich themselves and govern themselves in a world that has already been organized and defined by a set of intuitively understood commitments."

The task Wilson has set out for himself--debunking centuries of thinkers, from Hobbes to Freud, who have argued that people's inner drives are selfish and must be sublimated through social institutions--seems onerous at first. But he deftly shows that many of these thinkers did not distrust human motivations as much as their popularizers have led us to believe.

Adam Smith, for example, did indeed argue that we are self-interested. But by this he did not mean that we desire to get ahead at all costs; rather, we desire to be allegiant to the principles that have historically ensured order and prosperity in human society. We yearn not only to be praised, Smith wrote, but to be praiseworthy; not only to be loved, but "to be lovely."

Wilson has a harder time trying to scientifically prove that we are naturally inclined to behave morally. While he finds solid evidence for the most basic of altruistic drives (e.g., mothers who have bonded with their babies almost never commit infanticide), it's a huge leap from here to his grand social conclusions: e.g., ". . . the attack on slavery gradually triumphed, not simply because slavery came to be inefficient or unprofitable but because it was wrong."

Indeed, Wilson himself often suggests that only the most "vainglorious" of thinkers would purport to understand the complex interaction of forces, from biological to cultural, that gives rise to a social institution like slavery.

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