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Crime wasn’t the only area where Wilson’s contributions were immense. Politics was his academic specialty, but Wilson understood that to understand politics one first had to understand the culture from which it emerged and the character and values of the people who made up that culture. This was the subject of what Wilson regarded as his most important book, The Moral Sense (1993). At the heart of the book was Wilson’s exasperation that Americans lacked the language, though not the interest, to discuss such crucial issues openly and intelligently. Even as the country has become more secular, it has remained fixated with questions of morality and values. But rather than defining and defending moral values, Americans retreated from the discussion, falling back on a default relativism that refused to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and evil.
Wilson would have none of it. Against the temper of the times, he upbraided people for refusing to pass moral judgment and for claiming that there was no moral standard by which to measure their society or others. Presumably, Wilson scolded, these people “would oppose infanticide only if it involved their own child. This is sometimes called tolerance. I think a better name would be brutality.” Like much of Wilson’s work, The Moral Sense illuminated what it means to be a moral person and a good citizen, even if some suggested that such questions were no longer worthy of consideration.
Wilson’s concern with morality also influenced his study of free-market capitalism, yet another subject about which he wrote wisely. No apologist for capitalism’s excesses, Wilson nonetheless defended it against the charge, made so often by the academic left, that it was, if not immoral, then at the very least amoral. Wilson argued instead for the “morality of capitalism,” based on its uncanny ability not only to produce material abundance but also to encourage discipline, to improve people’s lives, and to sustain and nurture democracy. At a time when the morality of capitalism is once again being called into question, Wilson’s work stands as a powerful rebuttal.
The price of freedom, it’s often said, is constant vigilance. The same might well be said for civilization. James Q. Wilson devoted his life’s work to exploring the values and political structures that sustained civilization and the threats that confronted it. The streets of New York are just one of the places better off for his achievement.
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