Ethics & Public Policy Center

James Q. Wilson’s Moral Sense

Published in The American on March 2, 2012



With the death of James Q. Wilson earlier today, America has lost a towering intellectual figure. The mind reels in 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.

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.

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