IPT Book Reviews

Title: Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: James Q. Wilson
Publisher: Basic Books, 1997

Basic Books
10 East 53rd St.
New York, NY 10022-5299
(212) 207-7057
$18.00 (c)

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 through.

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 system.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.

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