An ethical question…

09 +00002013-05-13T18:44:05+00:0031 2012 § 4 Comments

From The Sunday Times May 12th 2013

From The Sunday Times May 12th 2013


One of my big treats is to read the book reviews in the Sunday newspapers. I’m always slightly sulky if, as occasionally happens, the review pages have been given over to the programme of a forthcoming literary festival or, worse, column after column of disappointingly brief paragraphs on ‘holiday reading’ or ‘books for Christmas’.

Yesterday’s review pages in The Sunday Times were particularly entertaining. Most of the reviews were interesting and several books were featured that I’ve made a mental note to buy. I’m not sure that this will include the lead title, however: The Anatomy of Violence: the Biological Roots of Crime, by Adrian Raine, reviewed by Jenni Russell. Raine, now a professor at an American university, has spent ten years studying violent criminals and their motivation and concludes that they are shaped by a combination of biological and social factors that are beyond their control. He is particularly keen to emphasise the ungovernableness of the biological factors that are at work, claiming that the brains of psychopaths and sociopaths are actually different from those of ‘normal’ people (though he confounds his argument somewhat by saying that the children of criminals, even if they are adopted, are more likely to commit crimes than other children).

As someone who is also interested in how the criminal mind works, though without the medical background, my instinct is to find this argument repellent. To me, it seems to be too closely related to the specious ‘insanity’ plea to which murderers and rapists often resort in order to obtain a lighter sentence or treatment at a secure hospital instead of jail, and to deserve about as much credence. I think that it is very dangerous indeed to suggest that sane adults are not responsible for their actions. As a girl, I had a close relative who would fly into terrible rages over some trivial mishap, such as when one of his children accidentally dropped a jar of honey on the floor, or the fire went out and he had to relight it. His frequent complaint would be: ‘I was in a good mood until you upset me!’ or: ‘I was perfectly all right until that happened!’ Even as a very young child, I remember the disdain that I felt that a grown man would try to duck responsibility for his vicious temper in this way.

I’m also more than a little disturbed by some of the experiments that Professor Raine describes. The review states (without comment): ‘In an experiment on almost 1,800 three-year-olds in Mauritius, children were measured on their bodies’ ability to anticipate that a particular tone would be followed by an unpleasant sound. It took only three trials for most children to sweat in anticipation of the harsh noise.’ I don’t like the sound of this at all. It raises all sorts of questions about the ethics of carrying out experiments with children, especially experiments that involve pain or fear. I realise that the experimentation described in Raine’s book involved fairly mild discomfort, yet it registers on a spectrum at whose extremity looms the terrible spectre of Mengele. I am reminded also of the ethical questions that arose concerning the Milgram experiment.

Professor Raine is more engaging when he writes about himself. From the review, it is not clear whether he is writing in a spirit of wry self-knowledge or simply being matter-of-fact when he reveals that, when he was seriously injured by an intruder while staying in a hotel room in Turkey, he felt a fierce, instinctive desire for revenge. Jenni Russell tells us: ‘He just wanted to see his assailant punished, and at moments he wanted that punishment to exactly match his own terrifying experience.’

I’d say that this eclipsing of Raine’s humanitarian tendencies by his more universally human ones is completely normal. It also illustrates why we need laws: in a civilised country, a judge and jury will dispassionately apply the law that prescribes fit punishment for the crime. Usually, it won’t be of the ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ variety that injured parties like Raine sometimes passionately, and perfectly understandably, desire. Conversely, although a case may certainly be made for using the results of research into the criminal’s brain – and his or her background – in order to provide therapy, I don’t think that it should count as ‘mitigating evidence’. Anyone can try to justify appalling behaviour – from childish rages to much more serious crimes – by blaming circumstance, biological or otherwise. The fact that most of us don’t is what makes society work.

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§ 4 Responses to An ethical question…

  • vallypee says:

    Christina, this post reminded me of how fragile the hold is that some people have on their destructive tempers and behaviour. I wonder if it is simply upbringing that teaches us control (conditioning?) or whether it is the sense of what is culturally and morally acceptable that most of us are influenced by (which may be almost the same thing). I also had a relative who was unable to control his rages and always managed to blame others for his lack of control. Knowing his background, he was a very indulged child who was never told to ‘get a grip’, but that is probably over simplifying things no end. Professor Raine’s experiments remind me chillingly (my adverbs again..haha) of John B Watson’s Little Albert experiment. What it says about Raine and Watson’s sensitivities – or lack of them – then makes me think of the writer (I can’t remember who now) who defined evil as a total lack of empathy.Again, this is a very broad statement, but when you start thinking about it, you can see where the connections might lie.

    • What you say about an indulged child is very interesting and gives me a perspective on something I’ve so far always failed to understand. I’m mentally addressing this! I much appreciate your perception of the ironies that underscore the work of these eminent psychologists.
      May I also thank you on behalf of other visitors for helping me to resolve the gremlins that seemed initially to afflict the workings of this particular post! 🙂

  • carol hedges says:

    Hahaha – should I be worried that you are so interested in how the criminal mind works? *hides weaponry*. I think the nature/nurture dictotomy will never be resolved. Humanity is too diverse and just as one theory is ‘proved’ another emerges. I believe that we are all capable of being responsible for our behaviour and to a certain extent controlling it – whether we chose to exercise that responsibility or not. Blaming our flaws on others is a cop-out. That said, I do think that there are individuals whose mental traits and subsequent personalities are such that they live detached from society, and feel no responsibility or remorse for what they inflict upon others. I was raised by such a one, and know full well how impossible it is to connect and the effects of living in close proximity with them. That said, I would never ‘blame’ my behaviour upon my upbringing. I choose NOT …. There. How to hold two views at exactly the same time!

    • Lucidly put! I think that Shakespeare exercised the issue very well in the two plots of ‘King Lear’, which has always engaged me as a splendid study of the contrasting choices siblings make. Thanks for a very thoughtful response, Carol, which I’m sure will interest readers here. 🙂

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