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Philosophical Issues and Criminological Theory

Before we directly address the various models that attempt to explain the roots of criminal behavior, we must first deal with some even more basic questions. These have to do with the beliefs about human behavior that all of us carry around as part of our everyday commonsense understanding about reality. Among them are beliefs about "human nature" and free will. Our thoughts on these basic questions shape our responses to those who would challenge our understandings and even more importantly often shape the direction of research a social scientist will pursue.

Human Nature:

There are several components to this issue that need to be discussed. (1) Is there any such thing as an innate universal human nature? Some would say yes, because we as human beings do share a common biological heritage.

However, if we accept such a presupposition, another problem immediately ensues: (2) What is the content of human nature? There is no agreement on this point. Some would say that human beings are naturally predisposed toward the "dark side", that evil and even violent behavior are part of our legacy as humans. A religious argument has often been made, particularly among religious fundamentalists, that we are all born with the taint of original sin and thus predisposed toward evil. Another version takes a more sociobiological approach, claiming that we are still much closer to other animal species than we would like to think. Aggressive defense of territory and violent means to obtain food, water, etc. typify many animal species. How could millions of years of evolutionary development mysteriously disappear? Haven't war and violence been an unchangeable aspects of the history of the human race? G. Gordon Liddy, the former Watergate conspirator, says as much every time he appears on TV or lectures at a college.

That a universally acquired human nature may pre-equip people to do good seems to be a minority position, but such a starting position is accepted in some cultures. Anthropologists have pointed out that such beliefs arise most frequently in groups that depend greatly on mutual co-operation for survival, such as hunting and gathering societies. For example, among the Tasaday of the Philippines there are no words in their language to express such feeling or actions as hate, fighting, violence, etc. Are these phenomena unknown among them? The Tasaday assumed their view of human nature was universal.

In the Western tradition positive views of human nature are less common, but not unthinkable. If each infant were born with a spark of the divine as the Genesis account infers, wouldn't that be a potential for good? Some theologians have argued that to be the case. For example, the 19th Century Protestant theologian Horace Bushnell in his book Christian Nurture pointed out that older Calvinist ideas of human depravity were no longer adequate. The potential for good existed in all of us. Unfortunately that potential was often extinguished before it had the chance to reach moral maturity.

Sociologists and anthropologists often argue that there is no such thing as a common universal human nature. Instead they hold that culture shapes human nature[s], which is (are) quite plastic or malleable. Margaret Mead's famous research in New Guinea on the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli peoples is frequently cited. If human nature is a learned phenomenon then it is possibly subject to the type of resocialization that those who favor classical or operant conditioning advocate. However, while sociologists may theoretically hold the position that there is no such thing as human nature, they frequently implicitly acknowledge one in their research.

Whether people are different in kind or only in degree from the rest of the animal kingdom is another important pretheoretical choice researchers make. Those who believe we are much closer to the animal kingdom are going to produce explanations of criminal behavior quite different from those who assert that we are quite unique from other animals. Do human beings respond much the same way rats and pigeons do? Or does the human brain and its use of language allow us to reason in a way that fundamentally separates us from all other animal forms?

Guest Columnist

God’s Gift?

Published: December 19, 2006
One of the more disquieting aspects of the Iraqi occupation is that the president’s final rationale for it is a cherished, though groundless, liberal belief about freedom. As we now know, the war was motivated less by any real evidence of Iraqi involvement with terrorism than by the neoconservatives’ belief that they could stabilize the Middle East by spreading freedom there. Their erroneous assumption was a relic from the liberal past: the doctrine that freedom is a natural part of the human condition.

A disastrously simple-minded argument followed from this: that because freedom is instinctively “written in the hearts” of all peoples, all that is required for its spontaneous flowering in a country that has known only tyranny is the forceful removal of the tyrant and his party.

Once President Bush was beguiled by this argument he began to sound like a late-blooming schoolboy who had just discovered John Locke, the 17th-century founder of liberalism. In his second inaugural speech, Mr. Bush declared “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom ... because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.” Later an Arab-American audience was told, “No matter what your faith, freedom is God’s gift to every person in every nation.” Another speech more explicitly laid out the neoconservative agenda: “We believe that freedom can advance and change lives in the greater Middle East.”

A basic flaw in the approach of the president and his neoliberal (a k a neoconservative) advisers was their failure to distinguish Western beliefs about freedom from those critical features of it that non-Western peoples were likely to embrace.

Those of us who cherish liberty hold as part of the rhetoric that it is “written in our heart,” an essential part of our humanity. It is among the first civic lessons that we teach our children. But such legitimizing rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that freedom is neither instinctive nor universally desired, and that most of the world’s peoples have found so little need to express it that their indigenous languages did not even have a word for it before Western contact. It is, instead, a distinctive product of Western civilization, crafted through the centuries from its contingent social and political struggles and secular reflections, as well as its religious doctrines and conflicts.

Acknowledging the Western social origins of freedom in no way implies that we abandon the effort to make it universal. We do so, however, not at the point of a gun but by persuasion — through diplomacy, intercultural conversation and public reason, encouraged, where necessary, with material incentives. From this can emerge a global regime wherein freedom is embraced as the best norm and practice for private life and government.

Just such a conversation has been under way since the first signing, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. Several Asian nations — some, like China, rather cynically, and others, like Singapore, with more robust reasoning — have vigorously contested elements of the culture of freedom, especially its individualism, on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the more communal focus of their own cultures. The doctrine of freedom, however, with its own rich communitarian heritage, can easily disarm and even co-opt such arguments.

The good news is that freedom has been steadily carrying the day: nearly all nations now at least proclaim universal human rights as an ideal, though many are yet to put their constitutional commitments to practice. Freedom House’s data show the share of the world’s genuinely free countries increasing from 25 to 46 percent between 1975 and 2005.

The bad news is Iraq. Apart from the horrible toll in American and Iraqi lives, two disastrous consequences seem likely to follow from this debacle. One is the possibility that, by the time America extricates itself, most Iraqis and other Middle Easterners will have come to identify freedom with chaos, deprivation and national humiliation. The other is that most Americans will become so disgusted with foreign engagements that a new insularism will be forced on their leaders in which the last thing that voters would wish to hear is any talk about the global promotion of freedom, whatever “God’s gift” and the “longing of the soul.”

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is a guest columnist.


Free Will v. Determinism:

Is our behavior, including criminal actions, something we freely choose to do by an act of our will or is our behavior largely determined by forces beyond our immediate self control such as our biological make-up, family environment, or socio-economic condition [i.e. growing up in a ghetto high rise]. There are 3 major positions on determinism that can be labeled hard determinism, soft determinism, and non-determinism [or free will].

The latter has a long history, and is particularly important to the American criminal justice system. Our system is not interested solely in evil actions, but ultimately in the motivation for such actions. For example, killing another human being is not a crime if it is done in self-defense or of an enemy during wartime. The act must be motivated out of a guilty mind that has freely chosen to do evil.

The free will position also has religious roots (like the natural depravity position), and is strongly held among evangelical groups who view freely-made choices as being the major determinants of both our earthly and eternal conditions. The free will position has been reasserted very strongly in our criminal justice system over the last 30 years. Examples include the introduction of adult sentences for juveniles ["they already know better"] and mandatory sentences for drunk driving. (They may suffer from the disease of alcoholism but they made a free will choice to get into their car drunk.) Even the insanity plea has come under attack by those who would seek to eliminate it altogether or replace it with a "guilty,but insane" verdict.

Within criminology, the earliest example of free will theory has become known as the Classical school [of Beccaria and Bentham]. However, if one argues that pleasure and pain are the only motivations in all situations the Classical school is really somewhat determinist.

At the other end of the spectrum is hard determinism, or the belief that our actions are actually controlled or impelled by forces beyond the immediate decision making process of the individual. Hard determinism takes a number of forms, particularly biological, psychological, and sociological determinism. We are fated by either our biological inheritance, early childhood effects on our psychological being, or the particular social environment we were unfortunately born into. Hard determinists hope to be able, after extensive research, to predict events and ultimately control behavior, particularly criminal behavior. Their models also serve as "salvation devices" by removing blame from the criminal and therefore the necessity of punishment. To punish individuals who cannot control their behavior would be the ultimate cruelty. Instead it is society's obligation to humanely offer treatment or assistance to those trapped in their untoward behavior.

Soft determinism takes a moderate position between the two extremes. Soft determinists believe that human beings do control a significant portion of their behavior, while they are limited in the choices they can make by lack of knowledge, quality of parenting, biological predispositions, economic circumstances, etc. A ghetto child, raised by an inadequate parent, attending an underfunded urban school, in a neighborhood with few job opportunities, etc. has many fewer choices than does a child born into the upper class with all the benefits and privileges such standing accords. However, many kids in ghetto neighborhoods will choose not to join gangs or become involved in delinquent behavior. Many will create better lives for themselves and their children.

Soft determinists also point out that we can not predict or control human behavior. Each person responds to the situations in which they find themselves uniquely. While trends or patterns may be noticed, predictions are always precarious. This is the reason that future violent or dangerous behavior is so difficult to predict, even when a team of psychologists has a prison inmate under continual monitoring.

Within criminology, the Neoclassical school first argued that free will could be diminished by mental disorders, mental incompetence,etc. Some have much more free will than others do.

Jack Katz, in Seductions of Evil, takes a position that on the free will/determinism continuum would fall somewhere between total free will and soft determinism. He questions whether either biological, psychological, or socio-economic/environmental models really explain criminal motivation. Do these conditions really motivate people to shoplift, rape, rob, and murder? Katz doesn't think so. Instead he asks what is so appealing about each of these types of crimes.

Most criminological theories have begun with the assumption that crime is morally repellent and therefore no one would choose freely to act in such a manner. Katz hopes to turn the criminal event into the topic of investigation itself rather than a resource for locating deviant personalities. His goal is shared by a group of sociologists known as ethnomethodologists. They have previously questioned other aspects of our taken-for-granted reality. Katz raises the possibility that certain crimes have seductive potentialities, but even these are not the ultimate determinants of criminal behavior. Criminals allow themselves to be seduced and in the process adopt the often upside down or reversed moral perspectives required to commit the criminal act. Katz's example in his book's introduction demonstrates how interrogators come to feel that those being questioned are under a "moral imperative" to answer their questions. Such a reversed moral logic has led to the beating of non-compliant captured enemy soldiers in wartime and the "compelled" testimony of many within our criminal justice system. Criminals used reversed forms of moral reasoning all the time as Sykes and Matza best illustrated.


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This page was last modified November 22, 2005