James Q. Wilson died last week at the age of 80. He was eulogized in the Wall Street Journal by Harvey C. Mansfield (“A Truly American Scholar”) and by Arthur C. Brooks (“Social Science with a Soul”). The WSJ also ran an editorial about him, and a half page of excerpts from his Journal writing over the years on March 3-4, 2012. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush and advised five decades of American presidents. Pat Moynihan once reportedly told Richard Nixon, “Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States.”
I came across him in 1993 when his book The Moral Sense was published. My copy is well marked and contains reviews by George Will, Christopher Manion, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Arthur Brooks argues that this book established “that man is, at his core, a moral creature. Some may say this is the product of evolutionary biology; others may chalk it up to God or natural law. But whatever the origin, Wilson believed that our moral sense was a central fact of humanity and an utter refutation of modern relativism.”
Wilson wrote in his preface: “Why have people lost the confidence with which they once spoke publically about morality? Why has moral discourse become unfashionable or merely partisan? I believe it is because we have learned either firsthand from intellectuals or secondhand from the pronouncements of people influenced by intellectuals, that morality has no basis in science or logic. To defend morality is to defend the indefensible.” He then goes on to describe how the writings of Darwin, Freud and Marx have contributed to this problem. Theorists have tried to talk us out of believing that we have a moral sense.
“Our reluctance to speak of morality and our suspicion, nurtured by our best minds, that we cannot ‘prove’ our moral principles has amputated our public discourse at our knees. We have cut off the legs on which any serious discussion of marriage, schools, or mass entertainment must stand.”
“The argument of this book is that people have a natural moral sense, a sense that is formed out of the interaction of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences.” He addresses the criticism of being judgmental or imposing your views of other people. “The moral relativism of the modern age has probably contributed to the increase in crime rates…It has done so by replacing the belief in personal responsibility with the notion of social causation and by supplying to those marginal persons at risk for crime a justification for doing what they might have done anyway.”
By contrast Wilson argues that everyone makes moral judgments at a very young age, and we distinguish between actions on the grounds that some are right and others wrong. Also, we acquire a set of social habits that we find pleasing in others and satisfying when we practice them ourselves. He goes on to discuss sympathy, fairness, self-control and duty.
St. Paul knew all this when he wrote, “When the Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (Romans 2:14-16)
“The Moral Sense” is worth reading, nearly twenty years later. I am glad that such a political scientist who taught at Harvard, UCLA, Boston College and Pepperdine received such appreciation at and before his death.