The Science of Being Good

Obedience to the law breeds obedience to the law.

That’s hardly news to faithful Catholics, but there is new scientific support for the premise that people are inclined to act in a more moral way when they are in a sound moral environment.

A Dutch study that was published this week by Science magazine found that “people are much more inclined to litter, steal and trespass when it seems other people have been breaking the rules,” the National Post reports.

For example: If a person sees $10 in an envelope that’s sticking out of a mailbox, he or she is twice as likely to steal the money if there is graffiti on the mailbox or litter on the ground around it, according to the study.

The study supports political scientist James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” philosophy of law enforcement that propelled the successful political career of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 1990s.

After becoming mayor of the then-crime ridden metropolis in 1993, Giuliani instructed New York cops to crack down hard on minor crime like panhandling and petty vandalism on the premise that this would also diminish the incidence of more serious crime.

The approach proved highly successful, with New York’s rate of violent crime plunging over Giuliani’s eight-year tenure as mayor. And crime rates remained at the lower levels afterward, as current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg retained implementation of the “broken windows” approach.

— Tom McFeely