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James Q Wilson and the Moral Sense

By Tyler Syck


This post is from a new series that will highlight Conservative leaders from history. Once a month, Tyler Syck, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and native Kentuckian, will highlight someone we think our readers ought to know more about. Sometimes they'll be politicians, other times they'll be thought leaders or intellectuals.


It is rare to encounter dedicated academic and social scientists whose research not only speaks to the contemporary moment but shapes public policy in important ways. James Q Wilson was one such rare scholar. In a career that spanned decades, Wilson’s research provided insights into criminal justice, childhood education, political parties, and bureaucratic regulation. Wilson’s thought was rooted in what he called the moral sense, the human instinct towards goodness that serves as the basis of society. If we wish to fix the problems of our day appreciating what he meant by this term and the ways he applied it are vital.


Most social scientists today understand society as being composed of atomized individuals all pursuing their own self-interest and shaped not by their nature but by the power structures that surround them. Wilson stood firmly against this view. For him, the organizing principle of society was the moral sense. By this Wilson meant the human instinct towards sociability and goodness – rooted largely in our sympathy for our fellow man. He argued that it was important for social scientists to understand the moral sense because the sentiments it derives from are the “fundamental glue of society” which helps sustain an environment in which humans can flourish. In his view, the greatest dangers in society come from practices that weaken the force of the moral sense and thus tear apart the fundamental glue.


Wilson applied his understanding of the moral sense to the policy areas he studied and in so doing showed the inadequacy of most social science research to understand and solve the problems of our day. His research on criminal justice is a prime example of such work. In his articulation of the broken windows theory, he argued that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder (such as a neighborhood with lots of broken windows) create an environment that further encourages crime. He used this insight to suggest a solution to the problem of urban unrest: by targeting minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, and public drinking police can create an atmosphere that discourages crime generally.


Another instance of this principle being applied in the realm of criminal justice is Wilson’s writings on drug policy. He criticized many of his colleagues for viewing the drug epidemic in the United States as a purely economic or medical problem. He instead argued that to solve the drug issue in this country we have to begin with the frank truth: “drug use is wrong and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.” If one begins from this point -viewing drugs as a moral issue – it clarifies the situation and opens the door to an array of new and interesting solutions.


Despite the titanic role Wilson filled in the world of social science, few seem to have followed in his footsteps in taking an appreciation of the moral sense as the root of sound public policy. If we wish to restore the torn fabric of our social order, reading James Q Wilson is a great place to start.


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