What do you and I have in common?

It’s been a busy week and I just sit to watch the news while sipping a little of what I think it’s a well deserved glass of wine . The newsreader starts talking about Pedro Hernandez, the man who has finally confessed to the murder of 6 years old Etan Pantz in 1979. And then I start thinking that it is beyond my comprehension how anyone can bring themselves to such an atrocity. And I wonder, do people like Mr Hernandez and the rest of humanity have anything in common?

What do I have in common with him?

And extrapolating then, my question is: Do we all share a universal moral core? And the question extends to anyone and everyone, in space and in time?

Is there a universal moral sense?

From early Greek thought to Adam Smith, Western thinkers have hoped to find a universal, natural goodness in humans. Over the last century, however, few of the great philosophical tendencies have accorded much weight to the possibility that men and women are naturally endowed with a natural inclination to goodness. Marxist thought of morality, religion and philosophy as mere ‘phantoms formed in the human brain‘(Wilson 1993:3). Freud, at least, argued that conscience existed. Behavioural scientists like B F Skinner even denied that. Present day philosophers like Rirchard Rorty dispute that there is anything like a core self or an inherently human quality.

I am fond of the work of J.Q. Wilson (1993:5) because he challenges this negative trend among philosophers and gives me what I want to hear. It might not be true, most of you will argue. But it makes me feel good about the world we live in, where children prostitution and slavery, pedophilia and other horrendous forms of behaviour do take place.

Wilson’s view is that the lives of most people revolve around the enduring facts of human existence – family, relationships, upbringing of children – to the extent that these preoccupations function as deterrents from a life of crime for the majority (Wilson 1993:11). Wilson argues that the daily lives of most people are permeated with moral references and that these derive from the interaction they had in their earliest familial experiences. In his book The Moral Sense (1993) Wilson wants to prove to readers that the mechanism underlying human moral conduct is the desire for attachment or affiliation.

Motherly Love

But, attachment to what or who?

Wilson defines attachment as the mechanism out of which our sociability emerges and, in turn, sociability becomes the state in which moral understandings are shaped (Wilson 1993:128). Our moral nature grows from an innate core self within all of us that is not a product of culture. He presupposes that this core emerges from two characteristics in human societies:

1. a general organisation around kinship patterns and

2. the phenomenon that children, no matter how burdensome for caretakers they may be, are not abandoned in large numbers.

From these facts Wilson assumes the existence of a universal moral sense, which exists in two meanings of the word:

1. virtually all humans make some sort of decision from a young age that distinguish between actions on the grounds that some are right and others are wrong.

2. virtually all humans acquire from young a set of social habits that find pleasing in others and satyisfying when practiced by themselves.

Yet, the existence of a moral sense does neither imply nor require the existence of universal moral rules:

What is most likely to be universal are those impulses that, because they are so common, scarcely need to be states in the form of a rule, and so escape the notice of anyone scanning indexes to ethnographic studies. The impulse to avoid incest is one such. Another – and to me the most important – is the impulse to care for one’s children“. (Wilson 1993:18).

Wilson’s work has a soothing effect on me, something I needed after seeing poor Etan’s father weep on TV after more than three decades of loosing his little boy.  I’d like to think that

a) humans are indeed innately good and that

b) that goodness develops from a desire for affiliation and attachment.

Each society characterises affiliation or attachment differently and therefore there are different manifestation of variations in time, space and both time and space within the nexus of human morality. But if we assume that affiliation is the nexus of human morality and the aim humans strive for, then one can assume this core will remain unchanged.

This is not an easy task, I know. Very often, the different presentation of this core seem to be almost incommensurate and contradictory. There are many examples in history, as I said, in the news, when we could argue that this universal moral sense is short and its effect uncertain.  Slavery, for instance, a common practice in ancient times in many parts of the world. The atrocities perpetrated by the nazi regime during the Second World War are also illustrative of time when the nexus affiliation has shown itself in its most feeble, almost non-perceivable form. Today, these manifestations offend most of us and make us doubt any human moral sense.

Wilson’s proposition suits me, it helps me find common ground even when it’s almost impossible to find it because it presupposes that if we dig a little there is something shared by all. Call it unscientific, perhaps (although I recommend you go through some of the empiric work Wilson conducted himself), but if it helps us  build a bridge amongst us, I’ll bet for it any time.



J. Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press, 1993)


One thought on “What do you and I have in common?

  1. Pretty intense topic to tackle on a chilled Friday night lol… I definitely understand the need to find some good in humanity, but why is it appeasing to know that you share common ground with a murderer? Especially with something like a desire for affiliation that seems pretty clearly to have either contributed to his depravity (unloved child himself?) or simply does not exist in him… I really think your blog is brilliant though and you grapple with theories that most popular bloggers would cry trying to wrap their heads around 🙂 Thanks!!

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