Commentary Magazine


What Is Moral, and How Do We Know It?

Almost every important tendency in modern thought has questioned the possibility of making moral judgments. Analytical philosophy asserts that moral statements are expressions of emotion lacking any rational or scientific basis. Marxism derides morality and religion as “phantoms formed in the human brain,” “ideological reflexes” that are, at best, mere sublimates of material circumstances. Nietzsche writes dismissively that morality is but the herd instinct of the individual. Existentialists argue that man must choose his values without having any sure compass by which to guide those choices. Cultural anthropology as practiced by many of its most renowned scholars claims that amid the exotic diversity of human life there can be found no universal laws of right conduct. In 1906, the sociologist William Graham Sumner declared that “the mores can make anything right”; 30 years later, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized the phrase “cultural relativism.” All of science seems the enemy of moral confidence, because its method requires that we separate factual statements, which can be verified, from “value” statements, which cannot.

It is not easy to know how greatly these intellectual currents have affected the behavior of ordinary people. I am inclined to think that most people most of the time live lives of ordinary decency as they struggle to raise children, earn a living, and retain the respect of their friends. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that what many intellectuals have come to discredit some people will come to ignore. If morality is thought to be nothing but convention or artifice, then it will occur to those persons who are weakly attached to society and its rules that they are free to act as they wish provided they can get away with it. And if they would have broken the rules anyway, the relativism of our age makes it easier for them to justify their action by the claim that the rules are arbitrary enactments.

I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage. These desires become evident when we think disinterestedly about ourselves or others.

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To say that there exists a natural moral sense (or, more accurately, several moral senses) is to say that there are aspects of our moral life that are universal, a statement that serious thinkers from Aristotle to Adam Smith had no trouble in accepting. In this view, cultural diversity, though vast, exotic, and bewildering, is not the whole story. In modern times, historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have sought for scientific evidence by which the existence of such universals could be proved; a few claim to have found it, but most feel that they have not. This has left most scholars skeptical about whether anything of universal significance can be said about our moral life. The box score has been something like this: Relativists 10, Universalists 1.

I am reckless enough to think that many conducting this search have looked in the wrong places for the wrong things because they have sought for universal rules rather than universal dispositions. It would be astonishing if many of the rules by which men lived were everywhere the same, since rules (or customs) reflect the adjustment of moral sensibilities to the realities of economic circumstances, social structures, and family systems. Hence one should not be surprised to find that the great variety of these conditions has produced an equally great variety in the rules by which they are regulated. Even so, some universal rules have been discovered: those against incest, for example, or against homicide in the absence of defined excusing conditions.

To find what is universal about human nature, we must look behind the rules and the circumstances that shape them to discover what fundamental dispositions, if any, animate them all in common. If such universal dispositions exist, we would expect them to be so obvious that travelers would either take them for granted or overlook them in preference to whatever is novel or exotic.

And so, indeed, it turns out to be with the most fundamental of those dispositions: the affection a parent, especially a mother, bears for its child and the desire to please that the child brings to this encounter. Out of the universal attachment between child and parent, the former begins to develop a sense of empathy and fairness, to learn self-control, and to acquire a conscience that makes him behave dutifully, at least with respect to some matters. Those dispositions are then extended to other people (and often to other species) to the degree that these others are thought to share in the traits we find in our families.

That last step is the most problematic, and as a consequence is far from common. Many cultures—especially those organized around clans and lineages rather than independent nuclear families based on consensual marriages and private property—rarely extend the moral sense, except in the most abstract or conditional way, to other peoples.

Because our moral senses are at origin parochial and easily blunted by even trivial differences between what we think of as familiar and what we define as strange, it is not hard to explain why there is so much misery in the world, and it is also easy to understand why so many people deny the existence of a moral sense at all. How can there be a moral sense if everywhere we find cruelty and combat, sometimes on a monstrous scale?

One rather paradoxical answer is that man’s attacks against his fellow man reveal his moral sense because they express his social nature. Contrary to Freud, it is not simply their innate aggressiveness that leads men to engage in battles against their rivals; contrary to Hobbes, it is not only to control their innate wildness that men create governments. Men are less likely to fight alone against one other person than to fight in groups against other groups. It is the desire to earn or retain the respect and good will of their fellows that keeps soldiers fighting even against fearsome odds, leads men to accept even the more distorted or implausible judgments of their peers, and persuades many of us to devalue the beliefs and claims of outsiders.

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We all, I believe, understand this when we think of families sticking together against interlopers, friends banding together against strangers, and soldiers standing fast against enemies. But the affiliative drive is so powerful that it embraces people unrelated and even unknown to us. Patriotic nationalism and athletic-team loyalties are obvious examples, but the most important case—most important because it animates so much of history right down to the present—is ethnic identity.

We may bemoan what we sometimes think of as the “senseless” violence attendant on the conflicts that arise out of ethnic identity. But imagine a world in which people attached no significance to any larger social entity than themselves and their immediate families. Can we suppose that in such a world there would be any enlarged sense of duty, any willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others, or even much willingness to cooperate on risky tasks for material gain?

The political scientist Edward C. Banfield has portrayed a world something like this in his account of the peasants living in the southern Italian village of Montegrano (a pseudonym), where the unwillingness of people to cooperate in any joint endeavors kept them in a condition of the most extreme poverty and backwardness.

The reluctance of the Montegranese to cooperate was not the product of ignorance (many of the peasants were quite well-informed about local affairs), of a lack of resources (other peoples just as poorly endowed have created bustling economies), or of political oppression (they were free to organize, vote, and complain, but few did). The lack of cooperative effort, Banfield argued, was chiefly the result of a culture that made people almost entirely preoccupied with their families’ short-run material interest and led them to assume that everybody else would do likewise. Under these circumstances, there was no prospect of collective effort on behalf of distant or intangible goals. Whatever its source, this ethos of “amoral familism” prevented people from identifying and affiliating with any group larger than the nuclear family.

Yet if the Montegranese had acquired larger patterns of identification and affiliation such that common endeavors without immediate material benefit became possible, they would also, I suspect, have acquired a set of relationships binding them together against people who were dissimilar on a larger scale than the family: residents of other villages, northern Italians, non-Catholics, or whatever. Affiliation requires boundaries; a “we” must be defined on some basis if there are to be any obligations to it; and once there is a “we,” there will be a “they.” Truly parochial people may not engage in “senseless violence,” but then they may not engage in “senseless cooperation,” either.

Note, however, that even in Montegrano, adults cared for their children. They were not “amoral individualists,” despite the fact that child care was costly and burdensome; indeed, for these poor people, it was especially burdensome. Despite the burdens, the birth of a child was a joyous event and its illnesses a cause for great concern. As the children grew up, they were greatly indulged and inconsistently disciplined.

I have said that our moral senses are natural. By this I mean that they are to some important degree innate and that they appear spontaneously amid the routine intimacies of family life. Since these senses, though having a common origin in our instinctive sociability, are several, gender and culture will profoundly influence which of them—sympathy or duty, fairness or self-control—are most valued. And since these senses are to a degree indeterminate, culture will affect how they are converted into maxims, customs, and rules. In some places and at some times men cherish honor above all else; at other times and in other places they value equity. Often they restrict these sentiments to kith and kin; sometimes they extend them to mankind as a whole.

The fact that there is so much immoral behavior is not evidence of the weakness of the moral senses. The problem of wrong action arises because of the conflict among the several moral senses that exist, because of the struggle between morality and self-interest, and because of the corrosive effect of those forces that blunt the moral senses. We must often choose between duty and sympathy or between fairness and loyalty. Should I fight for a cause that I do not endorse or stand foursquare with my buddy whatever the cause? Does my duty require me to obey an authoritative command or should my sympathy for persons hurt by that command make me pause? Does fairness require me to report a fellow student who is cheating on an exam, or does loyalty require me to protect my friend?

The way we make those choices will, for most of us, be shaped by particular circumstances and our rough guess as to the consequences of a given act. Sociability has two faces. Our desire to love and be loved, to please others and to be pleased by them, is a powerful source of sympathy, fairness, and conscience. At the same time, this desire is a principle by which we exclude others and seek to make ourselves attractive in the eyes of friends and family by justifying our actions with specious arguments.

I write these lines not long after terrible riots wracked the city, Los Angeles, that I love. What struck me most forcibly about the behavior of those who looted and burned was not that they did it—looting and burning go on in many places whenever social controls are sufficiently weakened—but that invariably the participants felt obliged to justify it even when they faced no chance of punishment.

For while we act out of narrow self-interest much of the time, something in us makes it all but impossible to justify our acts as mere self-interest whenever those acts are seen by others as violating a moral principle. We want our actions to be seen by others—and by ourselves—as arising out of appropriate motives. And we judge the actions of others even when those actions have no effect upon us.

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Though the moral senses make partially competing claims upon us, they all share—in their origin and their maintenance—the notion of commitment. Marriage differs from sexual congress because the former involves a commitment. Raising children in a family differs from raising them in a foster home or an orphanage in that the parents do so out of a commitment to the welfare of the child, whereas surrogate parents, however fond they may become of the child, are in part motivated by financial advantage.

The child instinctively wishes to please its parents but in time must learn that it is not enough to please them when they are watching; he is expected to please them when they are not watching as well, which will only occur if he is committed to them. When a child forms friendships, he takes on commitments to peers and expects commitments in return; they test these commitments with games and teasings that challenge one another’s self-control, sense of fair play, and obligation to honor the group and its members.

Similarly, employees are hired not simply in the expectation that every day their productivity will exceed their costs, but out of a desire to bring them into a commitment. Since the boss cannot closely supervise more than a few workers all of the time, he wants the workers to make a commitment that when he is not watching they will, up to a point, make his interests their interests. By the same token, employees do not view their employers simply as entities that pay wages, but also as people who have assumed obligations.

Commitments are both useful and honorable. We are fair both because we wish others to make commitments to us and because we condemn unfairness as a violation of a general social contract—a commitment—to treat others as deserving of respect. We develop self-control both because we wish our commitments to be taken seriously and because we view a lack of self-control as a sign that people are excessively self-indulgent. We are honest both because we wish others to accept our word and because we consider dishonesty to be a sign of wickedness. We avoid inflicting unjustified harm on others both because we wish no like harm to befall us and because we are aggrieved by the sight of innocent people suffering. We act as if we were sympathetic to the plight of others both because we wish our favors to be reciprocated and because we regard people who never display sympathy as wrongly indifferent to man’s social nature and our mutual dependence.

The economist Robert Frank has pointed out how many human actions that are otherwise puzzling (to an economist!) can be explained once we understand the practical value of commitments visibly made and “irrationally” obeyed. Why do we stick with a spouse even after a more attractive mate has become available, raise children through the years when the rewards seem nonexistent, keep bargains when it would be easy to evade them, and insist on a fair division when an unfair one would work to our advantage? And why have we done these things for centuries, suggesting that they have some evolutionary advantage?

The answer in part, says Frank, is that a person who makes and keeps commitments provides other people with a prediction of his future behavior: by his present behavior he is saying, “You can count on me.” Someone who can be counted on is likely to attract more opportunities for profitable transactions than is someone who, by past waffling on commitments, seems a poor risk.

But it is not enough merely to keep commitments. As Frank points out, a clever person could keep his promises only when breaking them were easily discovered. People thinking of offering a good deal to someone know this, and so must wonder whether his reputation for keeping commitments is deserved or faked. One important way that they decide this matter is by observing the emotions he displays when confronting a moral choice. Emotions communicate commitments more persuasively than arguments. One can contrive an argument, but it is much less easy (at least for most of us) routinely to fake love, guilt, indignation, or enthusiasm. In the long run, people displaying these emotions will get more offers of marriage, partnerships, and employment than people who seem calculating.

This may help explain why over the millennia the capacity for genuine emotion has survived as a fundamental part of human nature. But the evolutionary advantages of expressing genuine emotions are not the reason we express them on any particular occasion; these emotions for us are not strategic weapons by which we elicit better deals, they are—by definition—real feelings. They are moral sentiments.

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For all their differences, many of the dominant ideologies and intellectual tendencies of the 19th and 20th centuries have had in common the replacement of the idea of commitment with the idea of choice.

Analytic philosophy replaced the idea of commitments arising out of moral intuitions with the idea of choosing among “values” which, in principle, were little different from the flavors of ice cream. Freudian psychoanalysis as popularly expressed offered us the prospect of understanding and thereby choosing to modify or even terminate the “repression” that supposedly lay at the root of our cruel superego. And Marxism, like most other secular ideologies, assumed that man could create a wholly new social circumstance for himself. He could choose not to be self-interested, he could choose cooperation without compensation, and he could choose equality over equity. When this Marxist theory did not prove to be self-executing, Marxist practice required that he choose to dull his sympathies in order to endure the horrors of forced collectivization, the gulag labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals used to “cure” people who refused to accept the vision of the New Soviet Man.

Benthamite utilitarianism reminded us of the truism that men choose pleasure over pain, but then added the dubious corollary that the pleasures they choose are equal in value if they are equal in their intensity, duration, certainty, and propinquity. John Stuart Mill struggled to correct this by describing some pleasures that were better than others, but, of course, saying that one pleasure is higher or better than another implies the existence of some standard other than pleasure by which to judge things. This is obvious to anyone who has sought pleasure in the reckless satisfaction of bodily appetites, only to discover that differences in the quality of pleasure affect our chances of finding true happiness. Among the higher pleasures are the satisfactions that come from honor, sympathy, and self-respect.

Choice is a magnificent standard, up to a point. Men have made it clear that they want freedom and will die for it. But the freedom they want is not unconstrained choice. 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.

Ordinary people understand this very well, as when they insist that individual freedom is only meaningful in an orderly society. Political liberty, which is one of the greatest gifts a people can acquire for itself, is threatened when social order is threatened. It is dismaying to see how ready many people are to turn to strong leaders in hopes that they will end, by adopting strong measures, the disorder that has been the product of failed or fragile commitments. Drug abuse, street crime, and political corruption are the expression of unfettered choices. To end them, rulers, with the warm support of the people, will often adopt measures that threaten true political freedom. The kind of culture that can maintain reasonable human commitments takes centuries to create but only a few generations to destroy. And once it is destroyed, those who suddenly realize what they have lost will also realize that political action cannot, except at a very great price, restore it.

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, and could only have been invented by thinkers who felt compelled to construct society out of theories. When Hobbes asked what could make government legitimate, he decided that the answer to that question required him first to explain what could make social order possible. Given his radically individualistic conception of human nature, he was inevitably driven to conclude that people had somehow agreed to establish a social order by a series of individual choices. But men are not born into a state of nature, they are born into a social compact that has long preceded them and without which their survival would have been impossible.

This can be put in the form of a thought experiment. Imagine people stripped of every shred of their social experiences and set loose in some Arcadian paradise, free to invent “culture.” What would emerge? If they were young boys, it might be something akin to the cruelties and tyrannies depicted in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. But if they were men and women, it would be something with strange customs, odd dress, and unfamiliar gods, yet invariably with familiar systems of infant care, familial obligation, kinship distinctions, and tribal loyalties.

The results of such a thought experiment cast doubt, in my mind, on the philosophical value of imagining a human being who is presocial, driven by a single motive, or unaware of the main and necessary features of social life. The contemporary philosopher John Rawls may ask us to imagine ourselves in an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance,” but no human being is ever in such a position and, to the extent he is human, cannot possibly be ignorant. Hobbes may ask us to believe that man is driven by the fear of violent death, but were that our overriding concern we would not give birth to children or lavish so much care on them. Why should women risk death in childbirth or men and women expend so much effort on caring for something so perishable and whose protection increases their vulnerability to the predation of others? Rousseau may imagine an equally implausible alternative, man born with no inclination to civil society and corrupted by that society when it is invented and imposed upon him, but no such man can exist and, were he to exist, he could not learn goodness by reading Robinson Crusoe.

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Moral and political philosophy must begin with a statement about human nature. We may disagree about what is natural, but we cannot escape the fact that we have a nature—that is, a set of traits and predispositions that set limits to what we may do and suggest guides to what we must do. That nature is mixed: we fear violent death but sometimes deliberately risk it; we want to improve our own happiness but sometimes work for the happiness of others; we value our individuality but are tormented by the prospect of being alone.

In short, human nature cannot be described by any single disposition. Efforts to found a moral philosophy on some single trait (the desire for happiness or the fear of punishment) or a political philosophy on some single good (avoiding death, securing property, maximizing freedom) will inevitably produce judgments about what is right. At some critical juncture, those judgments will be at odds with the sober second thoughts of people who will deliberate about what constitutes praiseworthy conduct and who will decide, out of that deliberation, to honor the hero who has risked violent death, to sympathize with the mother who has sacrificed one child to save another, and to reproach the man who has asserted his rightful claim to property at the expense of a fairer distribution of that property.

If one acknowledges that there is no single moral principle but several partially consistent ones and that neither happiness nor virtue can be prescribed by rule, one is better prepared for a more complete understanding of man’s moral capacities. Such an understanding was expressed by Aristotle. Though his account is often dismissed as involving “mysterious nonempirical entities” and as being suspiciously conservative in its acceptance of the Athenian status quo, in most respects it precisely anticipates the findings of modern science.

There is certainly nothing mysterious or conservative about Aristotle’s assertion that men and women unite out of a “natural striving to leave behind another that is like oneself” because a “parent would seem to have a natural friendship for a child, and a child for a parent,” or that “the household is the partnership constituted by nature for [the needs of] daily life.” These are as close to self-evident propositions as one could utter. Only slightly less obvious, but still scarcely mysterious, are the arguments that “in the household first we have the sources and springs of friendship, of political organization, and of justice” and that “there is in everyone by nature an impulse toward this sort of partnership [that is, to the city].”

These natural moral sentiments are an incomplete and partial guide to action. They are incomplete in that they cannot resolve a choice we must make between two loved persons or between the desire to favor a loved one and the obligation to honor a commitment. They are partial in that they extend chiefly to family and kin, leaving nonkin at risk of being thought nonhuman. Resolving conflicts and extending our sentiments across the high but necessary walls of tribe, village, and racial grouping, an extension made more desirable by the interdependence of cosmopolitan living, requires moral reasoning to take up the incomplete task of natural development.

Yet the incomplete and partial guidance provided by our moral senses can lead the unwary philosopher to one or both of two errors: to suppose that if a sentiment does not settle everything it cannot settle anything; or to infer that if people differ in their practical choices they must do so on the basis of different sentiments. The first error leads to logical positivism, the second to cultural relativism, the two together to modern nihilism. A proper understanding of human nature can rarely provide us with rules for action, but it can supply what Aristotle intended: a grasp of what is good in human life and a rough ranking of those goods.

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If the moral senses can conflict with one another and with what prudent action requires under particular circumstances, then living a good life requires striking a delicate balance among those senses and between them and prudent self-interest. Common sense, to say nothing of modern philosophy, shows that there is no single rule or principle by which that balance can be struck. But common sense also gives us a language to use in describing people who have struck that balance well.

When we speak of people we admire, we do not often use the word “moral”—partly, I suppose, because that word strikes contemporary ears as suggesting that the person is priggish, severe, or stuffy. But we also do not use this word, I conjecture, because we do not judge people (unless we do not know them well) by any single trait; we judge them as having a set of traits, a character.

Now, by character we mean two things: a distinctive combination of personal qualities by which someone is known (that is, a personality) and moral strength or integrity. We judge people whole, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and reckoning up the totals into a kind of human balance sheet. People with the best balance sheet—that is, the most admirable characters—are usually not people who are perfect or have every single virtue to the highest degree; since the virtues—that is, the moral senses—are partially in conflict, that would be impossible. People with the best balance sheet are those who are the best balanced. In common parlance they are “nice persons” or “good guys,” or in polite (and vanishing) discourse, “ladies” and “gentlemen.”

A nice person takes into account the feelings of others and sympathizes with the joys and sorrows of people with whom he deals to the extent that those joys and sorrows are justifiable and proportional to the circumstances. But even when not expressing sympathy, the nice person does not inflict unjustified harm on innocent parties. He is fair in dealings with others and does not attempt to be a judge in his own case. He has prudent self-control and is not in the grip of extravagant passions that compel others to deal with him only on his terms. But that self-control does not prevent him from taking strong actions or expressing anger when important matters are at stake. He tries (being human, he will not always succeed) to take the long view when the more distant goal is clearly superior to the immediate one. When it is hard to do that, he looks for ways to force himself to do the right thing. Among these are habits: little, routine ways of acting, each rather unimportant in itself, but all combining to produce action on behalf of quite important sensibilities.

For example: the habit of courtesy (which over the long run alerts us to the feelings of others), the habit of punctuality (which disposes us to be dutiful in the exercise of our responsibilities and confirms to others that we have a sense of duty), and the habit of practice (by which we master skills and proclaim to others that we are capable of excellence). When, as inevitably happens, we confront circumstances that require us to choose among our moral senses or that confuse us as to whether there is a moral dimension to the problem, the good person makes the problem apparent by carrying on an inner dialogue about what is required of him.

In some cultures the qualities of a good person might be slightly different from what I have just listed. That the lists are different in different places is important, but not as important as some imagine, for it does not imply that a good character is purely a matter of local custom. If you doubt this, go to the most distant and exotic land and seek to employ an excellent carpenter, boat-wright, gardener, or sailor. You will discover, I think, general agreement in those places as to who is and who is not excellent at these crafts, and their qualities of excellence will not be limited to technical skill but will also embrace dependability, fair dealing, and an interest in your wishes.

The balance among the moral senses achieved by a good character living a good life is, to me, more an aesthetic than a philosophical matter. It is aesthetic in two senses: it is a balance that is struck without deliberation or reasoned justifications, and in the character thereby formed there is no clear distinction between form and content.

In this view, as in many others, I am much influenced by the late British philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. He wrote once of the “poetic character of all human activity,” by which he meant that (unlike academic philosophy) moral action does not ordinarily spring from the deliberate effort to translate into reality some idealized conception of what ought to be. Moral ideals arise out of habitual human behavior; they are what philosophers (and we) find to be implicit in our predispositions.

Aristotle understood this perfectly. We become virtuous, he said—and thus truly happy—by the practice of virtue. We acquire virtues just as we acquire crafts. We learn how to build by building and how to become a harpist by playing the harp; “so also, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.” A good character arises from the repetition of many small acts, and begins early in youth. That habituation operates on a human nature innately prepared to respond to training:

The virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature, but we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit.

We may be inclined to dismiss Aristotle’s view as too simple. After all, what did he know, several centuries before Christ, of the temptations of modern life—tobacco, addictive drugs, lush gambling halls, violent or sexually explicit motion pictures, and the anomie and opportunity of the big city? In fact, Aristotle was keenly aware that we are powerfully tempted to do that which is not in our long-term interests and that we give way to those temptations even knowing their likely bad consequences.

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We want to live in a community of reasonable order and general decency. What does this imply? Scholars have not always been as helpful as they might be in answering that question. Sociologists and anthropologists have stressed that order is the product of cultural learning without pausing to ask what it is we are naturally disposed to learn. Economists have rejoined by saying that we are disposed to learn whatever advances our interests without pausing to ask what constitutes our interests. And despite their differences in approach, they have both supported an environmental determinism and a cultural relativism that have certain dangers.

If, as these doctrines hold, man is infinitely malleable, he is as much at risk from the various despotisms of this world as he would be if he were entirely shaped by some biochemical process. The anthropologist Robin Fox has put the matter well:

If, indeed, everything is learned, then surely men can be taught to live in any kind of society. Man is at the mercy of all the tyrants . . . who think they know what is best for him. And how can he plead that they are being inhuman if he doesn’t know what being human is in the first place?

Despots are quite prepared to use whatever technology will enable them to dominate mankind; if science tells them that biology is nothing and environment everything, then they will set aside their eugenic surgery and selective-breeding programs and take up instead the weapons of propaganda, mass advertising, and educational indoctrination. The Nazis left nothing to chance; they used all methods.

Recent Russian history should have put to rest the view that everything is learned and man is infinitely malleable. After 75 years of cruel tyranny during which every effort was made to destroy civil society, we discover that the Russian people kept civil society alive, if not well. The elemental building blocks of that society were not isolated individuals easily trained to embrace any doctrine or adopt any habits; they were families, friends, and intimate groupings in which sentiments of sympathy, reciprocity, and fairness survived and struggled to shape behavior.

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.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.