The Right Thing Comes Naturally

`MAN has a moral sense, one that emerges as naturally as his sense of beauty or ritual (with which morality has much in common)."

So argues James Q. Wilson in his book "The Moral Sense," published this month. Everyone, he writes, from an early age makes moral judgments that distinguish right actions from wrong, and knows that for actions to be persuasive they must be seen as disinterested. Behavior outside the norms is recognized as wild or psychopathic. Further, "Man is by nature a social animal," he says. "Our moral nature grows directly out of our social nature."

People start out early clamoring for fairness. This is only smart: Without boundaries or rules of conduct they would be run over by bullies, or by those who, simply in having come into the world earlier, have the ballistic edge in weight, speed, strength, and mass. Besides the instinct for fairness, the survival of individuals, families, and societies of families, is sustained by the natural impulses of sympathy, self-control, and duty. Man's moral sense is less an unmistakable beacon than it is a candle

flame, to Mr. Wilson: It flickers ambiguously in the winds of power, greed, and ideology.

Nonetheless, this innate moral sense gives us something to work with - a predisposition to action of the right and beneficial kind, in critical policy areas of education, the environment, human health, and peacekeeping.

Washington's current throes over deficit reduction are itself an exercise in self-education, in a people's awareness that there must be some cap on borrowing, some boundary for living within its means. America's competitiveness relative to Western Europe and Japan is improving as United States businesses and organizations relate purpose more closely to effort. The US is still a wasteful and restless society at the same time that it spends enormous sums on its formal education system.

The America that was blessed with natural resources still struggles for an ethic to protect them. There is no natural law of environmental degradation. If man's impulse is moral, nature's impulse can be said to be for renewal. The question here is, Are we improving our habitat by living here? Our senses, distracted by policy disputes, would fail to observe the seasonal lesson of spring. We accept too low a standard for husbanding the earth.

The interesting question about health is how to accommodate the expanding "middle age" of people, from their 50s into their 70s and even 80s, who are staying involved and productive: not how to pay for their sickness, but how to appreciate their presence and contribution.

The toughest moral question facing the Clinton administration, the American public, the United Nations, and the NATO allies is how to stop the war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia. As have individuals perceived, all along the natural impulse, the right thing, has been to stop it. Yet collectively we have equivocated. The consequences will bear a price.

Right and wrong, good and evil, can involve us in endless brooding and debate. But it is helpful to observe that humans are predisposed to try to get things right. Even self-interest argues for the common good.

A moral sensibility seeks allies. It has a mission. My father relished the mentor role: You were never as bawled out, as exhorted, as reduced to tears, as when Primo told you how all of Western civilization depended on your doing the right thing. The right thing was always self-evident; his specialization was what he called "coaching," or motivation. Mother was gentler but no less absolute in her convictions. Our conduct may not have been perfect but the standard was certain. A moral sense began with soc ial responsibility. We had no right to the wonderful benefits of life for ourselves alone; opportunities were to be shared.

Another mentor once observed, "It is not intelligent to sin." This juxtaposition of what is taken to be intellectual capacity and animal inclination, the conscious and the unconscious, has given me much to ponder in the years since.

Now Wilson lends his argument to the cause.

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