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James Q. Wilson 1931-2012

I am told that James Q. Wilson, who died at 80 last week, regarded  The Moral Sense as his best book.  I wrote about the book in The New Criterion when it first appeared in 1993.  I thought readers might be interested in my reflections on this eminently thoughtful social scientist, and reproduce the essay here in its entirety:

James Q. Wilson on the Moral Sense

We must be careful of what we think we are, because we may become that.

—James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense

For  well over a century, Western intellectuals have rather specialized in bad news. There have been important exceptions, of course. But for the most part, recent reports from the fancier intellectual and cultural fronts have been contributing little to human self-esteem. Sophocles, in a famous chorus from Antigone, proclaimed that of “all wondrous things man was the most wondrous”; the Judeo-Christian tradition affirmed that man was created imago dei, in the image of God; the Enlightenment, though skeptical about God, nonetheless touted man’s autonomy and the universality of human reason; and even Immanuel Kant waxed enthusiastic about “the starry sky above and the moral law within.”

What remains? In the middle of the nineteenth century, Darwin came along to tell us that man, far from being imago dei, was in fact descended from the higher primates. Marx dismissed the entire realm of morality, religion, and culture as so many examples of ideology: “phantoms formed in the human brain,” he sneered. Freud claimed that what used to be called “conscience” was really a repressed distillate of lust and murderous aggression. And in Beyond Good and Evil— a title that epitomizes an entire worldview—Nietzsche assured readers that the ambition to provide a rational foundation for morality was “insipidly false and sentimental” in “a world whose essence is will to power.”

Today, these revolutionary ideas have lost the thrill of novelty but not their sting. They live on: as routine background assumptions (not to say as tokens of bona fides) for most academic intellectuals, and as a horizon of doubt and anxiety for many others. In the intellectual establishment, it is simply taken for granted that—as the philosopher A. J. Ayer put it—moral concepts have “no objective validity whatsoever.”

The omnibus term for this situation is relativism. In part, it is a correlate of what we might call the anthropological axiom: the conviction that morality, like human nature itself, is completely plastic, malleable: a function of culture not nature. If a tribe somewhere practices infanticide or cannibalism—well, chacun à son goût. One well-known guru of cultural relativism, Clifford Geertz, summed it up neatly when he insisted in the early 1970s that “there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture.”

This is the absolute that the deniers of absolutes champion. Their Index Prohibitorum is capacious: terms such as “universal,” “truth,” and “essence” feature prominently, as of course do “good” and “evil.” Anything suggesting that something in human nature transcends the leveling contingencies of culture is verboten. The proscriptions come in sweet and sour varieties. Sour is generally preferred among academics, as the popularity of gloom-spreaders from Sartre to Derrida and Foucault attests: man “is only a recent invention,” Foucault famously sighed in Les Mots et les choses, destined to “disappear soon.”

But sweet relativism, too, has its appeal, as the attention granted to the chummy nihilism of Richard Rorty reminds us. Rorty, one of the most influential philosophers in American academia today [he died in June 2007], won his wide following by tarting up relativism with various aw-shucks blandishments. Insisting (like just about every other academic today) on “the ubiquity of language,” Rorty’s relativism takes the form of a radical pragmatism. He tells us that the statements “It is true because it works” and “It works because it is true” are indistinguishable. He waves a cheerful goodbye to “ideas like ‘essence,’ ‘nature,’ and ‘foundation,’” denies that human beings possess anything like a “core self,” and dispenses with “any truths independent of language.” Hence philosophy must emancipate itself from the idea of truth, morality must jettison the distinction between good and evil. There are no such things, Rorty continues, as “plain moral facts,” “nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness is preferable to the other.” Then comes the sugar: If we would only stop thinking about such anachronisms, we could usher in a “liberal utopia” in which irony triumphs and “the charge of relativism has lost its force.”

Although widespread among intellectuals, relativism à la Geertz or Rorty does not proceed entirely unchallenged. The latest challenge comes from the perhaps unlikely quarter of the social sciences. In The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson, Professor of Management and Public Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, mounts a spirited and articulate defense of the idea that the disposition to make moral judgments is innate in human beings. His frankness is a breath of fresh air: “We do have a core self, not wholly the product of culture, that includes both a desire to advance our own interests and a capacity to judge disinterestedly how those interests ought to be advanced.” When was the last time you heard a prominent academic invoke the idea of disinterested judgment (to say nothing of the notion that we possess a “core self”) without derision?

Wilson, whose previous books include Thinking about Crime, Bureaucracy, and other works concerned with public policy, writes about morality as a public fact. The language of virtue and morality has had a tough time lately. “Our reluctance to speak of morality,” he notes, “and our suspicion, nurtured by our best minds, that we cannot ‘prove’ our moral principles has amputated our public discourse at the knees.” Consequently, part of his purpose in this book is “to help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality.” It is not, he writes,

an effort to state or justify moral rules; that is, it is not a book of philosophy. Rather, it is an effort to clarify what ordinary people mean when they speak of their moral feelings and to explain, in so far as one can, the origins of those feelings.

Because the practice of morality is partly a social act, recovering the language of morality is at the same time an acknowledgment of social responsibility. “Rebuilding the basis of moral judgments,” Wilson points out, “requires us to take the perspective of the citizen, but the citizen has gone to great lengths to deny that he has a perspective to take.” While few ordinary people consciously espouse the extreme relativism that makes the academy such a cheerful place today, many have been infected by the habits of mind that such relativism encourages. “We are,” Wilson writes, “engaged in a culture war, a war about values.” It says a lot, for example, that it is now easier to renounce a marriage than a mortgage. If so many highly educated people—men and women, moreover, who educate and help to form the tastes of the young—proclaim themselves “liberal ironists,” liberal irony will naturally be a powerful ingredient in the cultural climate.