|| Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?
||James Q. Wilson
||Basic Books, ©1997
10 East 53rd St.
New York, NY 10022-5299
Yes, is the answer James Q. Wilson gives to the question in his title. He
sees the legal system as both allowing and contributing to the decay of
personal responsibility for behavior. Since the legal system is built on
the assumption that individuals are responsible for what they do, inevitably
the expansion of legal opinion and case law holding persons not responsible
for their acts will destroy the system.
This short book of five chapters and 134 pages is packed with cogent and
succinct reasoning based on the premise that morality exists and is necessary
for any society to survive. Wilson uses well-known trials, such as the Menendez
brothers, to trace the progression of case law to increase the scope of
irresponsibility. He also depicts the expansion of excuses such as drunkenness,
domestic violence, and insanity to exclude ever more and more acts through
the convoluted legal procedure of discriminating between cases making ever
finer and finer nets, which creates an increasing number of holes to wiggle
Expert witnesses are depicted as major players, if not villains, in this
deteriorating process, and throughout the book there are pungent examples
of experts making egregiously foolish claims. Wilson makes a distinction
between what he regards as hard science and the soft social sciences, and
he calls for banning all psychiatric and social science experts from the
courtroom. His conviction is that the law ought to decide legal issues on
the basis of what is right and what is wrong, not on compassion or imperfect
science. This is a challenging book and one that is hard to dispute in terms
of reasoning. It can be read with profit by anyone concerned with our legal
Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.