Can America Find the High Ground in Cultural War?

Article excerpt

There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery - then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved. -Jesse Jackson

This was the year that America looked in the mirror and blanched. This year the political system moved gingerly toward confronting the question of how public policy can nurture, or injure, character. The "person of the year," emblematic of the dominating public concern, might be a young black male dressed in the regalia of the gang and rap music cultures. And the intellectual event of the year was the publication of James Q. Wilson's "The Moral Sense."

It has become the conventional wisdom that there is no knowledge, only opinion, about morality, and that human beings have no nature other than their capacity to acquire culture. Wilson's warning is: We must be careful of what we think we are, lest we become that. By "scavenging" (his word) in various sciences, particularly evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology, he concludes that cultural diversity, although vast, is not the whole story.

Human nature is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. And the fact that so much about America nowadays, from random savagery to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked.

The development of conscience has been much studied - Jean Piaget's many hours watching Swiss children playing marbles; studies of altruism in the Holocaust; studies of twins, including those separated at infancy. The studies have produced powerful empirical evidence of a moral sense that is a component of a universal human nature.

A moral sense is the most plausible explanation of much of our behavior. Statecraft always is soulcraft, for better or worse, so the political challenge is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.

Inside every person there is (in Konrad Lorenz's phrase) a "parliament of instincts." The moral sense, says Wilson, is among the calmer passions; it needs help against its wilder rivals. We have selfish interests, but also the capacity - and inclination - to judge disinterestedly, even of our own actions.

Wilson asks, Could mankind survive if parents had to have the skill, perseverance and good luck sufficient to teach every rule of right conduct the same way they teach multiplication tables? Right conduct is so important that the tendency to it must be rapidly acquired, which suggests that children are biologically disposed to imitate behavior and learn the underlying rules by observation. …

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