James Q. Wilson and the Defense of Moral Judgment

Sally Satel, "James Q. Wilson and the Defense of Moral Judgment," The American, 8 August 2013.


This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense. 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.

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.” 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.

The American