print logo
RSS FEED

James Q. Wilson’s Moral Sense

Friday, March 2, 2012

Professor Jim Wilson was, for many of us, a strong beacon light. He dispelled darkness with nearly every word he wrote.

With the death of James Q. Wilson earlier today, America has lost a towering intellectual figure. The mind reels when thinking about the issues Professor Wilson wrote about with such precision, intelligence, originality, and elegance: crime and human nature;  drug legalization, science, and addiction; moral character; benevolence; free will; families and communities; race; business ethics and capitalism; American government; democracy and the Islamic world; and much more.

James Q. Wilson was not only America’s pre-eminent political and social scientist, he was one of our leading moral philosophers. There was no subject, it seemed, on which he couldn’t deepen our understanding.

What animated him most of all was a commitment to citizenship, virtue, and the moral good. He believed in our capacity to improve, even if imperfectly, the human condition.

He was also a monumental presence within conservatism. Professor Wilson brought to the movement what it desperately needed: rigorous and cogent analysis; respect for social science and empirical data; and a calm, measured style that never exceeded what the evidence indicated.

But there was far more to him than that. He was a man who deeply loved his country. In reading his books and essays over the years, it seemed to me that what animated him most of all was a commitment to citizenship, virtue, and the moral good. He believed in our capacity to improve, even if imperfectly, the human condition.

And he understood as only a few others have that the task of civilization is to educate the hearts and minds of the young; to shape, in the right way, the habits of the heart.

In The Moral Sense, Wilson concluded this way:

Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.

Professor Wilson was, for many of us, a strong beacon light. He dispelled darkness with nearly every word he wrote. And to those who knew him best and loved him most—his family, his friends, his students—Jim Wilson warmed their souls.

He will be missed so very, very much.

Requiescat in pace.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

FURTHER READING: AEI recently honored James Q. Wilson in “The Sinatra of Social Science.” Some of Wilson’s many works include “Angry about Inequality? Don't Blame the Rich,” “Will Washington Pay for the Terror Trials?” “Addressing the Problems That Lead to Prison,” “The Evolution of Art,” and “Crime and Economy Don't Tell Whole Story.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

Most Viewed Articles

The U-9 and the Realm of the Unexpected By Ralph Kinney Bennett 09/19/2014
Exactly 100 years ago the world was reminded yet again that war — declared or undeclared — is in ...
Why the Government Won't Let Colleges Reduce Tuition By Ike Brannon 09/17/2014
Congress should give permission for private colleges to cooperate in cutting their tuition. It’s ...
The Minimum Wage Can Never Be High Enough By Ike Brannon 09/07/2014
The minimum wage is a facile non-solution for the complicated problem of poverty in America.
Closing the Racial Gap in Education By Jason L. Riley 09/10/2014
The usual explanation for the academic achievement gap is that blacks come from a lower ...
Telecommuting: Good for Workers, Good for Bosses By Michael M. Rosen 09/12/2014
Challenges abound, but the trajectory is plain.
 
AEI