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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.”
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
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