On Character
by James Q. Wilson

A collection of essays and speeches that are not as insightful as his earlier work Crime and Human Nature. One essay defends the war on drugs. Drug abuse leads to child neglect, improvidence, lethargy, and carelessness. But these are all separate vices that can be distinguished from the vice of abusing one's body. He believes in government intervention for conservative goals. He blames the Enlightenment for some of our problems.
Anyone who explains high rates of drug abuse, criminality, or family dissolution by some defect in character (rather than as a consequence of social inequality, unemployment, or political oppression) is immediately taken to be a reactionary, probably in the grip of some extreme evangelical obsession. (2)

good character means at least two things: empathy and self-control. (5)

What is striking about the desirable school ethos is that it so obviously resembles what almost every developmental psychologist describes as the desirable family ethos. Parents who are warm and caring but who also use discipline in a fair and consistent manner are those parents who, other things being equal, are least likely to produce delinquent offspring. A decent family is one that instills a decent character in its children; a good school is one that takes up and continues in a constructive manner this development of character. (14)

If you believe that voters and politicians seek rationally to maximize their self-interest, then it would certainly be in the interest of most people to transfer wealth from future generations to present ones. (17)

a Victorian morality inhibited Anglo-American democracies from giving in to their selfish desire to beggar their children. (18)

Modernity ... involves, at least in elite opinion, replacing the ethic of self-control with that of self-expression. (20)

Virtue is not learned by precept, however; it is learned by the regular repetition of right actions. We are induced to do the right thing with respect to small matters, and in time we persist in doing the right thing because now we have come to take pleasure in it. (22—23)

"Ethics" comes from the Greek word "ethos," which means habit. (108)

A course of action cannot be evaluated simply in terms of its cost-effectiveness because the consequence of following a given course—if it is followed often enough and regularly enough—is to teach those who follow it what society thinks is right and wrong. (23)

Large numbers of young people are expected to be free both of close parental control and of the discipline of the market. (33)

The person who, when young, had little doubt that she was doing better in school than her classmates because she was smarted, better organized, and more strongly motivated than they, and who took for granted that these traits could not be wholly explained by having taken Flintstone vitamins, upon attending college suddenly accepts the view that now, at age eighteen or nineteen, the human personality is formed wholly by environmental factors. Such a view implies a radical discontinuity in human experience: while both nature and nurture play a role in the early years, only the latter plays any role later. We do not believe that about our talents (for music, chess, or baseball); why do we believe it about our personality? (42)

It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind. (112)

Until well into the nineteenth century, volunteer watchmen, not policemen, patrolled their communities to keep order. (135)

... the police role had slowly changed from maintaining order to fighting crimes. The change began with the creation of private detectives (often ex-criminals), who worked on a contingency fee basis for individuals who had suffered losses. In time the detectives were absorbed into municipal police agencies and paid a regular salary; simultaneously the responsibility for prosecuting thieves was shifted from the aggrieved private citizen to the professional prosecutor. This process was not complete in most places until the twentieth century. (129)

... the order maintenance functions of the police are now governed by rules developed to control police relations with suspected criminals. (131)

Once we begin to think of all aspects of police works as involving the application of universal rules under special procedures, we inevitably ask what constitutes an undesirable person and why we should criminalize vagrancy or drunkenness. (132)

Law enforcement per se is no answer. A gang can weaken or destroy a community by standing about in a menacing fashion and speaking rudely to passerby without breaking the law. (134)

Year Read: 1997


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