Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Death of James Q. Wilson

I have just learned that James Q. Wilson died this morning at the age of 80.

Jim Wilson was one of the greatest political scientists of the past 50 years.  He grew up in Southern California.  He graduated from the University of Redlands, and then went to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D.  At Chicago, he took a course from Leo Strauss on Kant.  I remember him telling me that he didn't understand anything in the course, except that Kant was wrong, but that was enough to satisfy Strauss. 

At Chicago, he made a great impression on Edward Banfield, a professor known for his research on urban politics.  When Banfield went to Harvard, he took Wilson with him.  Wilson was a professor at Harvard for over 25 years.  He then ended his formal teaching career at UCLA.

Wilson was best known for his work in criminology.  As a young scholar, I admired his book Crime and Human Nature, which I used as a text in some of my classes as a classic of political science.  I detected in this book and some of his other writings an evolutionary view of human nature.

This was confirmed in 1993 by the publication of Wilson's The Moral Sense.  Wilson said that he was most proud of this book.  For me, his pride was warranted.  This book was crucial in shaping my thinking about the evolutionary roots of human nature, and particulary the evolutionary confirmation of the idea of the natural moral sense in Scottish moral philosophy.  In many ways, this book pointed me to my book Darwinian Natural Right.

One can see in Crime and Human Nature and The Moral Sense the distinctive theme of Wilson's scholarship--an Aristotelian concern for the importance of moral character in individual and social life.  He insisted that most of our problems in life come from a lack of good moral character.  His famous theory of "broken windows" as a guide for community policing, which may have had some influence in reducing crime rates in cities where it was adopted, illustrates this insight.

I got to know Jim, and he was generous in supporting some of my endeavors.  One of the highlights of my life was organizing a panel for an American Political Science Association convention on The Moral Sense, with Jim, Robin Fox, Robert Trivers, and myself as panelists.  I remember being surprised when Jim confessed his nervousness before this panel, because he was afraid that Bob Trivers would expose his ignorance of biology.  Despite his prominence, he was in some ways a shy man.

Another prominent memory is of Jim at a Liberty Fund conference on the ethical and political implications of Darwinism.  The organizer was John West of the Discovery Institute.  Although none of the assigned readings took up the issue of "intelligent design," West had stacked the conference with about half of the participants being proponents of "intelligent design."  At the first night's dinner, I warned Jim about what I feared was going to happen.  Instead of talking about Darwinian ethics and politics, they insisted that we should talk about how Darwinian science was obviously false and about the superiority of "intelligent design" explanations.  This ruined the discussion.  Finally, at the beginning of the penultimate discussion session, Jim started off by announcing that he was leaving early because he had no interest in debating "intelligent design," and that he had been deceived into attending the conference without any warning that it would be controlled by proponents of "intelligent design."  He then walked out.  From that point, the Liberty Fund refused to sponsor any more conferences organized by the Discovery Institute.  When West wrote his book attacking Darwin's Conservatives, Jim was a target as well as me.

I admired Jim for the power and clarity of his intellect and for his gentlemanly character.  I remember as a young political scientist thinking that he was the model of the kind of political scientist that I would like to be.

I will miss him.

His obituary has been published on the front page of the New York Times.

1 comment:

Rob S said...

The Moral Sense fundamentally changed the way I thought about political science. Thanks for introducing Wilson's work to your students, Dr. Arnhart.