Magazine article Insight on the News

Society Must Cultivate Man's Innate Moral Sense

Magazine article Insight on the News

Society Must Cultivate Man's Innate Moral Sense

Article excerpt

Two years ago, I was shocked upon landing in Bogota, Colombia, to be met by camouflaged soldiers with submachine guns -- signs of a tottering republic held hostage by drug cartels.

Visitors to the United States could one day be greeted the same way. Sharon Pratt Kelly, the mayor of Washington, has called for the National Guard to patrol the streets of the nation's capital.

Drastic measures such as these are an understandable reaction to a new type of crime sweeping our cities: random violence, engaged in apparently for sport. In Dartmouth, Mass., three schoolboys surrounded a ninth-grade classmate and stabbed him to death. Afterward they laughed and traded high-fives, like basketball players after a slam dunk. In Oakland, Calif., a teenager chased a woman down the street and stabbed her to death while onlookers chanted, "Kill her! Kill her!" like fans cheering at a football game. Tourists in Florida increasingly find themselves targets of random attacks.

This is the new face of crime in America. Crime as sport; murder for the fun of it. In the past, lawbreakers were motivated by some recognizable emotion: hatred, greed, envy. But today the headlines tell of murder without motive, reason or remorse.

What we are witnessing is the most terrifying threat to any society -- the death of conscience.

Criminologist James Q. Wilson, in his new book, The Moral Sense, argues that morality is innate, that the inclination to pass moral judgment is rooted deep within human nature. This, of course, is no new insight; it derives from a long tradition of moral philosophy. It is also the teaching of most religions. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul taught that all human beings have a conscience, a "law written on their hearts."

But conscience must be trained, just as we must be trained to speak a language. It is said that feral children, raised in the wild, are unable to speak despite an innate capacity; likewise, children raised in a moral wilderness never learn to judge right from wrong.

The most crucial training takes place in the family Parents teach their children by setting an example and requiring certain behavior. As Aristotle wrote, virtue consists not merely of knowing what is right but also of having the will to do right. And the will is trained through repetition. In Aristotle's words, "We become just by the practice of just actions."

But parental teaching can't take place if parents aren't there. With divorce and dual careers, parents today spend 40 percent less time with their children than did parents a generation ago. …

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