ON-Lion Letter
Bradley Prize recipient James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense was published 20 years ago.  In August, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research's (AEI's) online magazine The American noted the occasion with an article by Sally Satel.

"Written in a time of creeping moral relativism, Wilson wrote in defense of judgment -- and, in particular, of humans' natural predisposition to form moral assessments," according to Satel, a resident scholar at AEI -- with which Wilson was affiliated throughout his career until his death last year.  The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee substantially supports AEI.

"One purpose of The Moral Sense was, as Wilson put it, 'to help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality,'" Satel writes.  "The other goal was to trace the origins of human morality.  Summoning an array of anthropological evidence, Wilson elaborated on the idea that our moral sense is innate, acquired not through learning but through evolution.  These sentiments do not spring to life fully formed; instead, they are cultivated within family and society.  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had advanced the idea of inborn moral affinity but Wilson enlarged upon it, proposing that the moral sense rested upon four foundational pillars:  sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty."

Wilson believed that to have authority, Satel says, law should "reflect the moral values of the citizenry, which encompass fair punishment.  "What's more, a blameless world would be a very chilly place, inhospitable to the warming sentiments of forgiveness, redemption, and gratitude.  In a milieu where no individuals are accountable for their actions, the so-called moral emotions would be unintelligible.  If we no longer brand certain actions as blameworthy and punish transgressors in proportion to their crimes, we forgo precious opportunities to reaffirm the dignity of their victims and to inculcate a shared vision of a just society. 

"In the words of Wilson, 'if we allow ourselves to think that explaining behavior justifies'" it, Satel concludes, "'virtue then becomes just as meaningless as depravity -- a state of affairs in which no society could hope to remain ordered or healthy.'"
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