on conscience

An unlikely confluence of ideas between two books I was reading this week:

James Q. Wilson published The Moral Sense, which makes many of the same arguments from a criminologist’s perspective. ‘What most needed explanation, it seemed to me, was not why some people are criminals but why most people are not.’ Wilson chides philosophers for not taking seriously the notion that morality resides in the senses as a purposive set of instincts. They mostly view morality as merely a set of utilitarian or arbitrary preferences and conventions laid upon people by society. Wilson argues that morality is no more a convention than other sentiments such as lust or greed. When a person is disgusted by injustice or cruelty he is drawing upon an instinct, not rationally considering the utility of the sentiment, let alone simply regurgitating a fashionable convention.

The Origins of Virtue, by Matt Ridley

“Ah, but our conscience, my dear Bond. What shall we do with him while we are committing some juicy sin? That is a problem. He is a crafty person this conscience and very old, as old as the first family of apes which gave birth to him. We must give that problem really careful thought or we shall spoil our enjoyment. Of course, we should murder him first, but he is a tough bird. It will be difficult, but if we succeed, we could be worse even than Le Chiffre.”

– Mathis speaking to James Bond in Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.