13 March 2012
Still, seldom does a controversial public figure’s death inspire such universal praise for the man’s life and work as did James Q. Wilson’s (left) two weeks ago.
And make no mistake about it, for much of his career, the political scientist, criminologist, and former Harvard professor was controversial.
So, what accounts for the posthumous consensus that this was a man about whom nothing bad was to be said, even by the liberal media that had previously been in the habit of excoriating him as “right-wing” and “reactionary”?
It’s very simple: nothing succeeds like success.
Every article led—and many of them focused almost entirely on—his so-called “broken windows” theory of police enforcement.
In a nutshell, the theory stated that by paying attention to small violations of public order, such as broken windows, graffiti, and the like, the police could create a sense of increased security in a neighborhood. And the resulting general feeling of public security would in turn translate into a reduction in more serious crimes.
What is more, the theory seemed to work! At least, it was widely credited in the press with reducing crime rates in New York and other big cities during the 1980s and beyond, though a number of academic studies have cast doubt on that proposition.
But I don’t want to talk about the broken windows theory today. I want to talk about the more controversial side of his work—particularly as it relates to education—which had previously stirred quite a bit of public debate, but which was mostly shunted aside in the obituaries by the much greater renown, and perceived outstanding success, of his work on criminology.
What I have in mind is Wilson’s theory of virtue or moral character, especially as expressed in his path-breaking book, The Moral Sense (Free Press, 1993).
I admit that Wilson’s ideas on character had previously escaped my attention, and that I was alerted to their importance by an op-ed piece, entitled “The Rediscovery of Character,” that New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few days after his death.
In this column, Brooks made some rather startling claims.
First (this is not so startling), Wilson actually began his academic career as a standard-issue secular-liberal political scientist:
When Wilson began looking at social policy, at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces. Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition. Policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” he once recalled.
Wilson worked within this tradition. But during the 1960s and ’70s, he noticed that the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated.
The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.
It is already amazing that a good secular-liberal social scientist would notice these facts at all. What is more stunning still is that he allowed the facts to change his theoretical allegiance, rather than the other way around, as one would expect.
In short, Wilson saw that moral standards exert a strong influence on human behavior, and he was deeply intrigued by this fact hitherto unacknowledged by social scientists (though well known to all parents).
It was Wilson’s apostacy from the secular-liberal faith that human behavior is reducible to “rational” (read: self-centered) and “utilitarian” (read: hedonistic) motives that made him into a “right-wing reactionary.” It also made him into a genuine student of human behavior, as opposed to a left-wing ideologue.
Brooks goes on to explain the basic idea that brought about the revolution in Wilson’s thinking:
“At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, “in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials.”
When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.
He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.
Interesting that Brooks writes “theocratic” when what he really means is “religious,” but let that pass.
In his book, Wilson expanded on the intriguing implications of these ideas for public education:
We are convulsed by a debate over whether our schools should teach morality. Much of that debate is as misguided as the debate over families, because it is based on a misunderstanding of the sources of morality. Some conservatives argue that the schools should impress upon their pupils moral maxims; some liberals argue that, at most, the schools should clarify the “value” choices the pupils might want to make. But if the argument of this book is correct, children do not learn morality by learning maxims or clarifying values. They enhance their natural sentiments by being regularly induced by families, friends, and institutions to behave in accord with the most obvious standards of right conduct—fair dealing, reasonable self-control, and personal honesty. A moral life is perfected by practice more than by precept; children are not taught so much as habituated. In this sense the schools inevitably teach morality, whether they intend to or not, by such behavior as they reward or punish. A school reinforces the better moral nature of a pupil to the extent it insists on the habitual performance of duties, including the duty to deal fairly with others, to discharge one’s own responsibilities, and to defer the satisfaction of immediate and base motives in favor of more distant and nobler ones.(p. 249)
This all sounds so obvious and so sensible that it is hard to imagine why it should be controversial.
But in speaking in this way, Wilson was flagrantly flouting the philosophical relativism that is so deeply entrenched in the American academy, in general, and in the public-education establishment, in particular.
Wilson was essentially calling for a return to a time-tested Aristotelian understanding of human nature, and to a pedagogy based upon that understanding.(1)
What could be more deeply threatening to a moral relativist than that?
(1) See the Nicomachean Ethics, especially Book II.