Sin and Crime: Their Nature and Treatment

Sin and Crime: Their Nature and Treatment  (1885) 
by Annie Besant

I · II · III · IV · V


Their Nature and Treatment.



Page1-Sin and Crime.jpg











Few questions are of more importance to the student of sociology than that of the nature and treatment of sin and crime; in this and the following papers I purpose to examine the subject, to ask what light is thrown on it by the Bible—as the received guide in morality by the majority—and by science; and to seek some rational mode of dealing with both sinners and criminals.

A few definitions are necessary at the outset, in order to avoid misconception of the terms used. The definitions may or may not be accepted as generally true, but they will bind me in all I write here under the above heading, and so will serve for clearly showing my meaning, whether that meaning be approved or not.

I define Sin as disregard of moral law. Some people take it as connoting God, or breach of supernatural law. I do not so use it. A word is needed to signify wrongdoing, outside, as well as including, the scope of the criminal law, and the word sin is useful for this purpose. It includes, but goes beyond, all crimes, and I define Crime as breach of a special kind of moral law, of law which is enacted by some authority and enforced by penalty. A crime will therefore necessarily be a sin, but a sin need not be a crime.

The words "law" and "moral" also require definition. Law is a word which has two meanings, and much confusion often arises from the ambiguity thus occasioned. It means (a) observed sequence of phænomena; all "natural" laws mean this and nothing more. It has been observed that pieces of matter tend to move towards each other; e.g., a stone, unsupported in the air, moves to the ground. The fact that all matter tends thus to move is expressed by the phrase, "the law of gravitation". This law is not a command, but a registration. It does not say to matter, "Thou shalt thus move"; it simply records, "Matter tends thus to move".

Law also means (b) an enactment, issued by some recognised authority, with a penalty attached to a breach thereof. It says distinctly, "Thou shalt", or "Thou shalt not".

Law in sense (a) cannot be broken, though it may be disregarded; a man who leaps from the height of a tower does not break the law of gravitation; he disregards it, and his mangled limbs as he lies on the ground bear mute witness that the sequence is unbroken. All suffering consequent on disregard of natural law is the result of the law itself remaining unbroken; no arbitrary penalty is attached to the disregard; the results of the disregard prove the infrangibility of the law.

Law in sense (b) can be broken; the command can be disobeyed. And although disobedience may meet with penalty, the penalty has no necessary connexion with the infraction of the law, and may be evaded altogether. A theft, punishable with imprisonment, remains unpunished if the thief be unknown, and the imprisonment is an arbitrary penalty, changeable at will.

The word "moral" I define, in its narrowest sense, as "tending to increase the general happiness". In its wider sense it is applied to all philosophy which deals with conduct. Moral conduct is conduct which tends to increase general happiness. Moral science is science that deals with conduct; distinguishes the tendency of actions on society; marks them with approval or disapproval as they tend to promote or injure the general welfare.

Moral law, then, is law regulating conduct, and may be of either of the two types noted above. Moral law of type (a) is the registration of observed sequences of moral phænomena, the scientific statement of human experience in matters of conduct. Moral law of type (b) is the code made by man for the regulation of society, for the prevention of actions deemed seriously injurious to the commonwealth, such actions being made punishable by the civil authority. In addition to these clearly defined kinds of moral law, there is a sub-class of type (a) which deserves a word of notice; it is of very variable nature, consisting of rules which must be classed as "moral" in the wide sense since they deal with conduct, but of rules which are the result of limited and partial experience, breaches of which have attached to them the penalty of social disapprobation. This class belongs to type (a) in so far as its classification of actions rests on a true induction; its laws, often based on mistaken observations and too limited experience, are apt to class wrongly the tendencies of actions, and so to come into conflict with sound morality.

The vices classed as self-regarding come under the head of sins, but not under that of crimes. Although in the social union no act of an individual is ultimately self-regarding only, yet society wisely only inflicts legal penalty on actions committed by one citizen which are directly injurious to the others. Thus a man who chooses to get drunk in the solitude of his own room commits a sin of the self-regarding order, and remains unpunished by law; but if he gets drunk in the street and becomes disorderly and a public nuisance, he then commits a crime, and incurs a legal penalty.

Seeing that in this country the Bible is put forward as an authoritative rule of conduct, it is natural to ask what light it can throw on our enquiry. If we fail in obtaining any satisfactory result from it, we must seek elsewhere for aid. For the moment we will examine what the Bible has to say about sin and crime.

"Sin entered into the world", we are told, by "one man's disobedience" (Rom. v. 12 and 19), and referring to the act of disobedience we find that it consisted in breaking an arbitrary command given by God; an artificial crime was created by the command, and so the first "sin" was committed. Seeking a little further, we find a mass of commandments, in which grave moral duties of universal application are mixed up with rubbish of ceremonial detail; in which a command as to the shape into which a man's beard is to be cut stands side by side as of equal importance with the forbiddal of the prostitution of a daughter (Lev. xix. 27, 29); and an order as to the wearing of fringes is put on an equality with directions about the gravest offences (Deut. xxii. 12—30). If we refer to the "Ten Commandments", giving them a pre-eminence that is not claimed for them in the Bible, our ideas about sin will not be greatly clarified. The first four deal with man's duty to god, and do not therefore come within our definition of morality at all, except in so far as duties to God may come into conflict with duties to man, and so may tend—as they most certainly do—to diminish the happiness of the community.

The penalty attached to the breach of any of these four was that of death; breaches of them were crimes, punishable by the civil authority. Of the criminal nature of any acts infringing them not the smallest doubt is shown. Modern civilisation has relegated most breaches of them to the category of sins, not punishable by law. "Profane cursing and swearing" is occasionally punished, when done to the public annoyance, and here and there an old woman is fined for a breach of the fourth Commandment. Even those who believe in God, and who consequently regard offences against him as sins, prefer to leave him to punish the sinner, occasionally adding some social penalty. But the gay crowds who throng the Thames and who play lawn-tennis at garden-parties on the Sunday, would be rather startled if law-makers re-enacted the Bible law on Sabbath-breaking (Ex. xxxv., 2). In truth the Bible is not itself consistent in the matter, for Paul despises the Sabbath (Col. ii., 16).

The so-called "second table of the law" deals with moral conduct, but is rendered useless as an ethical guide by the fact that what Jehovah here forbids he in other places commands. The command to honor father and mother is contradicted by the statement of Jesus that "if any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother … he cannot be my disciple" (Luke xiv., 26). The command not to murder stands in striking contrast with the command to destroy Amalek and to "slay both man and woman, infant and suckling" (1 Sam. xv., 3). "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is said by the same God who bade Jews ravish captured women and turn them adrift afterwards (Deut. xxi., 10—14). "Thou shalt not steal" has but small force when accompanied with directions to "borrow" jewels which were not to be returned (Ex. xi., 2). "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" is not of much weight when we find God bearing false witness against his (1 Kings xxii., 20—22). And who could think it wrong to covet his neighbors' goods, when Israel at God's command coveted and stole all the possessions of the Canaanites? On these vital points of conduct the Bible speaks with a divided voice, banning and blessing, forbidding and commanding.

Taking the Bible as a whole, we find it decisive and clear when marking out offences against God; doubtful and confused when dealing with real sin and crime. In both the Old and New Testaments faith is the supreme virtue; unbelief the unpardonable sin. The discharge of moral duties by the believer is confined to his fellow believers; thus the Jew was told: "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother … unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury" (Deut. xxiii., 19, 20); to the Christian was set the example of Christ: "I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me" (John xvii., 9).

No help can we find here in any scientific inquiry; no light comes to us from this much-vaunted lamp. Interesting historically the Bible is; but as a guide in moral science it is worse than useless.


Putting the Bible on one side in our investigation, we next seek for the reason, or reasons, for the presence of sin and crime in our midst. The difficulty of the existence of evil in a world created by a good God is as old as philosophy; it has led to dualism in many forms, Persian, Egyptian, Christian, but it has never been satisfactorily answered by any religion. Only since Science has spoken has light been thrown on the reason for the existence, and therefore on the nature, of sin.

During the long ages of the past of our earth all living things have struggled thereon for existence. Omitting, as irrelevant to the present enquiry, the struggle for existence in the vegetable kingdom, we can easily recognise, as we study the animal world, the qualities which give advantage to their possessors, and the types which are most likely to survive. Physical strength, used remorselessly for individual advantage, will clearly make for survival; cunning, craft of brain, will enable its possessor to cope with and sometimes even overcome superior muscular force. The trampling out of the weak will be a necessary incident in the struggle and the stronger and abler surviving, they will transmit to their posterity the qualities which rendered them victorious in the fierce fight for life. Thus selfishness, absolutely necessary to survival in the earlier stages of the struggle, was one of the qualities hammered into and welded with the brute nature, till it became an integral part thereof; an unselfish beast of prey, could such a thing be found, would have a very short life, and by no means a merry one. Maternal affection among such animals is a case in point—the lioness will risk death for the sake of her whelps; and it seems tolerably clear that maternal affection could not have evolved to any great extent, in consequence of the disadvantage incurred by the animal manifesting it were it not that the care and protection thereby insured to the offspring made for the survival of the race in which the quality was evolved, and the advantage obtained in the general defence and nurture of the young more than counterbalanced the disadvantage befalling some adult individuals.

This love of offspring is the first step out of the complete self-centreing of the brute; it is very limited in its period of endurance, even when the animal has reached the stage of savage humanity, but still it is a step upwards.

The second step is the acquisition of the truth that in the struggle for existence "union is strength." An enlightened selfishness largely replaces the blind selfishness of the earlier stages, and partial surrender is made of possible and immediate individual advantages, with a view to the enjoyment of undisturbed and unmenaced possession of other advantages, and of the attainment of many only to be secured by united action. Most of the crimes occurring in civilised society are caused by the irruption of the primal blind selfishness into the enlightened selfishness of the majority.

The third step is the evolution of sympathy, an evolution which is not possible until the brain has acquired considerable development. Sympathy implies imagination; the onlooker puts himself in thought in the place of the sufferer, and feels his sufferings by mentally transferring them to himself. Hence the perfectly accurate view that we cannot fully sympathise with any suffering we cannot understand; complete comprehension is necessary for complete sympathy. The absence of imagination in the savage, in the young child, in any whose brains have remained little developed, explains why each of these is often so cruel. The savage who tortures his captured enemy; the child who tortures one of the lower animals; the degraded ruffian who tortures his wife or his child; all these take pleasure in torturing, partly because of the exercise of power involved—the tormentor being patently superior to his victim—and partly because of the physical excitement attendant on watching violent physical contortions. None of these is capable of sympathy, because none possesses the imagination which would transfer the pain of the sufferer to the tormentor, and so render impossible the continuance of the infliction.

A mere glance at the customs of savages will help us along our road of inquiry. They are still in the stage of fierce struggle for existence, the struggle being only tempered by regard for the crude social union whose advantage they have begun to recognise. The tiger murders any living thing which comes in his way and suits him as food; the savage equally murders without remorse, but limits his murders by social custom. He slays the useless of the tribe, its aged and its surplus young; the struggle for existence is more successful when these non-producing consumers are put out of the way. Among some tribes murder is regarded as a virtue, probably by inherited tradition from the times when the most successful murderer had the best chance of survival. Büchner remarks: "Among the Fiji islanders the shedding of blood is a virtue, and not a crime. Whoever the victim may be, whether man, woman, or child, whether slain in battle or murdered by treachery, to be in any way a recognised murderer is the condition most eagerly coveted by every Fiji islander" ("Force and Matter," p. 365, ed. 1884). As barbarism grows towards civilisation, respect for human life is gradually developed; each man's objection to being murdered results in a general agreement not to murder within the limits of the community; and when this custom, or agreement, is crystallised into law, such murder becomes a crime. The recognition that the taking of human life is a sin is a plant of very slow growth. Such taking is only regarded as a sin in cases in which actual enactment has stamped it as criminal. Murder by duelling, until forbidden by law, was thought honorable; a successful duellist who had often been "out", and had several times "killed his man", was regarded with admiration by society—English society, be it noted, not Fijian. So true is it that "conscience" is an artificial product! Murder by hanging within the community, and murder "by aggressive war outside it, are still considered right by most civilised nations. In fact, everyone admits that there are cases in which killing a human being is a justifiable act; a man defending his own life; a nation fighting against invasion; a people rebelling against despotism; in all these cases every moralist admits that man has a right to kill man. With such a past behind us, with such a present around us, is there any reason for wonder that the crime of murder is still found in our midst? It would, on the contrary, be a most extraordinary thing if no murders were committed. And we shall presently find reason to believe that all murderers—save those who have committed murder without premeditation, in some sudden fit of passion which has caused over-pressure of blood in the cerebral vessels—are persons suffering from congenital malformation, arrested development, or acquired lesion, of the brain.

Falsehood—always a sin, a crime only when complicated, as in perjury—may be traced from its root in similar fashion. Falsehood, regarded as a social, not as a self-regarding fault, is essentially an act of deception to the injury to another. We find it in the craft of the brute who traps his prey; in the cunning of the savage who robs without remorse. To quote Büchner once more: "Among the Indians, a well-executed theft is considered a most meritorious act; even the ancient Lacedemonians looked upon a theft carried out with great dexterity as worthy of the highest commendation. To the ever poor and hungry gipsies, larceny does not appear as a crime, but simply as a necessity" (Ibid, p. 363). Respect for the "rights of property" has not been quickly acquired, and at the present time is not generally recognised. If "property" has any sound basis, it can only be found in the security of possession by an individual of that which he himself has made; at the present time a man's "property" usually consists in that which he may have acquired by inheritance, or by more or less legal annexation of other people's belongings. Certain kinds of falsehood and of theft are crimes, such as perjury and burglary; other kinds are sins, such as gambling on the turf or the Stock Exchange, and various conventions of trade. It is idle to express horror at the annexations of the ordinary thief, and to express admiration at the annexations of the extraordinary gambler. In the court of morality the common thief and the speculator in Egyptian loans stand on the same level; both inherit the old thieving instinct; the fox and the gipsy still survive to rob the henroost, and people ask why theft is so common, when our progenitors were predaceous brutes and predaceous savages. Once again, Science bids us look backward at our ancestry when we seek the origin of evil.

The origin of self-regarding sins is as readily discovered. We may take as a type the sin of unchastity. The law, in the most civilised states, has marked some sexual actions as crimes; the word unchastity is applicable to all kinds of sexual actions which are injurious to the individual or to society, but ought not to be applied to acts which are really harmless to both, even though they be condemned by a tradition inherited from semi-barbarous times. In dealing with this question we come to a class of actions which we have above described as a sub-class of type (a).

Chastity is not, in the savage state, regarded as a virtue at all. The natural mutual inclination of the sexes is taken for granted, and the savage is no more ashamed of it than is the brute. Many tribes—as the Andaman, South African, Australian—wear no clothes, and practise promiscuity in the most perfectly public fashion. Darwin tells us that "it is even doubtful whether in some tribes incest would be looked on with greater horror than would the marriage of a man with a woman bearing the same name, though not a relation" ("Descent of Man," p. 115, ed. 1875). Büchner quotes N. von Nicklucko-Maclay as stating that the Papuans "have no idea of incest, and the fathers exercise the jus primæ noctis on their marriageable daughters" ("Force and Matter", p. 367). The consecration of female virginity before marriage, and of surrender only to the husband after marriage, appear historically to have grown entirely by the pressure of male jealousy. Women were bought for wives and concubines, and were less valuable if they had been previously owned. As males were always in the position of purchasers, male virginity or continency did not come under discussion. Thus female incontinency has come to be regarded as a most serious, and male as a most trivial, sin. Even when it becomes a crime, as in adultery, sex decides the amount of criminality; if a wife is seduced, the husband may claim freedom from the wife whose value has been diminished, and damages from the seducer to recompense him for the loss; but if a husband is seduced, the wife can obtain neither freedom from her bad bargain, nor monetary consolation. Legal enactment makes a distinguishment in crime on the ground of sex, and the public conscience, being formed by legal enactment, of course endorses the distinction. Morality stamps as sin any sexual action which inflicts any real injury on an individual or on society, whether the act be incepted by man or woman, or be done with the full volition of both.

Taking as types of sins and crimes the particular cases dealt with above, the reason for the existence and the nature of both is readily distinguishable. The recognition of moral duty—and, by contrast, of moral lapse—has been of very slow growth, has been very gradually evolved. All individuals have not risen to the same point of evolution; sin and crime are the relics in modern society of our brute and savage ancestry; sinners and criminals are persons who have not developed up to the normal standard of their own time. It has been observed that the bully, the rowdy, the ruffian, of a village, turns out an admirable soldier. The result is only what might be expected, since the brutality, violence, and quarrelsomeness, characteristics of the savage, which make a man an intolerable nuisance in a decent, civilised community, are the very qualities which are required in the anti-social military condition. It is sometimes complained that the army is largely recruited from the scum of the population: it would be more reasonable to recognise that only the scum of the population is savage enough to make the thorough fighting animal. Unhappily, men to good for the trade often slip, or are dragged, into the army, and suffer as the civilised must do when condemned to live among men of a type lower than their own. Men of the savage type, who are not fortunate enough to be drafted into the army, recruit the numerous ranks of the "criminal" population. Their predatory instincts lead them into conflict with a society whose normal moral standard has been evolved past the level which they have reached. It is their misfortune that they are born a few centuries too late, in a country too civilised to suit them. Eight hundred years ago, or even less, their abilities would have made them the founders of great families, and would have earned for them undying fame. Nothing can prove more clearly the relative nature of "morality", than the fact that the late Mr. Charles Peace, so unappreciated in the nineteenth century, would have made a very decent baron in the eleventh, and would have been looked back to with pride by his descendants.


When once we recognise the tremendous part played by heredity in the formation of the individual, and the dependence of the moral sense on physical and mental development, the question is certain to arise: What is responsibility? How far can a person be said to be responsible for his actions, if those actions largely depend on his inherited tendencies, and on the limitations proper to his evolutionary stage?

We will at once shut out of our inquiry the idea of responsibility to God. The only responsibility with which we are here concerned is responsibility to man, i.e. to society. And we must consider (1) the responsibility to society of the individual for crime, leading to the problem of punitive action by legal tribunals, and of the duty of society towards its members; (2) the responsibility to society of the individual for sin, at the bar of public opinion.

At what stage of evolution does the responsibility of the individual begin? We can pass over the mineral and the vegetable kingdoms and travel into the animal, before we can attach any meaning at all to the word. And when we discover its germs, we find the three divisions of mind are all present in the type possessing them: sensation and intellect must be there, determining will, in however low a stage each may be. Let us take an elementary case: some action of an animal has caused a sensation of pleasure, or a sensation of pain; the intellect memories the succession between action and sensation; the remembrance of the pleasure, or of the pain, determines the organism to repeat, or to avoid, the action connected with the pleasure, or with the pain. This determination of the organism to action is what we call will. It is obvious that in the brutes it is determined by memory of pleasure and of pain. Is it otherwise in man?

A sane psychology answers this question in the negative. Pleasure and pain are the ultimate determining causes of all volitions, however they may be obscured by intervening notions. Even those who incur pain on religious grounds do it to "please God", so that even with them pleasure is the determining cause. As Herbert Spencer well says: "If there be any who believe that human beings were created to be unhappy, and that they ought to continue living to display their unhappiness for the satisfaction of their creator, such believers are obliged to use this standard of judgment; for the pleasure of their diabolical God is the end to be achieved" (Data of Ethics, p. 46).

Will is, then, determined by pleasure and pain, and hence was defined by Hobbes as merely "the last appetite", desires and aversions competing until one triumphs and emerges from the conflict as "will". But, it is alleged, we are "free" to choose. The word "free" is misleading in this connexion. Freedom means liberty of action, self-determination. It means absence of external restraint or compulsion, not absence of internal causation. A man is "free to choose" when his action is determined by his own volition and is unrestricted by any limitation imposed by others, when no outside power hinders or directs the current of his desire. But this freedom of action does not imply the non-determination of will. I am free to drop a weight on the table, if I choose to do so, but if there be lying on the table a delicate piece of china which I prize, I shall not choose to drop the weight on it: "I can if I like;" quite so, for my action is determined by my liking; but I cannot like to do so, because the breaking of my china would cause me pain, and avoidance of pain determines the volition. If I should choose to let the weight fall and break the china, it would be because the attraction of some pleasure, greater than the pain caused by the loss of the china, determined my volition in favor of dropping it. Out of the grip of this necessity we cannot escape, and we shall find later how important is its bearing on the treatment of sin and crime.

A will determined by sensation and intellect must be limited by their limits, and its so-called "strength" must depend not only on the strength of each considered separately, but even more on their strength in relation to each other. Take the case of a man in whom sensative ability is strong and intellectual ability weak; he will feel keenly all impressions from without, at the moment of their making, but his memory of past impressions, his recognition and memory of the results accruing from his response to them, his judgment on the total of pleasure or pain growing out of his response, all these will be small and feeble. Such a man will be swayed chiefly by the circumstances immediately surrounding him, and will be at the mercy of any strong impulse from without; in ordinary parlance he is a "weak man". But take the case of a man in whom intellect is stronger than sensation; who remembers clearly the pain which resulted from some previous action, and in whom the representative are stronger than the presentative feelings; such a man will be guided by reason and judgment rather than by impulse, and, surrounded by temptation, the memory of his past experience will control his volition, and men will say of him, "his will is strong". The strong will is determined chiefly by intellect; the weak will by feeling.

The predominance of sensative over intellectual ability is characteristic both of the undeveloped brain of a high type, and of the congenitally deficient brain. Sensation being prior to intellect in evolution, we should naturally expect to find it predominant in the young brain, whether young as regards the evolution of the race, or young as regards the evolution of the individual. In the child this predominance is marked; its actions follow the hasty impulses of its variable sensations, it is headlong, impatient, lacking in self-control; education develops the intellect and gradually transforms the impulsive unconsidering child into the well-balanced, thoughtful, self-ruling man. Education lacking, the undeveloped child-brain persists into adult life, to the detriment of its possessor and the discomfort of its surroundings. Where the environment is favorable to decent living, the child-brained adult is merely peevish or passionate, ill-regulated, illogical, prejudiced, narrow; the type is common enough, and, as might be expected, is more common among women than among men, because in them intellect has been more subordinated to feeling, and their education has been a mere farce. Where the environment is unfavorable, the child-brained adult becomes a criminal, hurried by his unregulated desires and thoughtless impulses over the barriers of conduct set up by society.

The congenitally deficient brain is the brain of the low-class savage, approaching the brute, or the brain in which some part is wanting, rudimentary, or stunted. The possessors of these brains must inevitably be criminals in civilised society, belonging as they do to a lower plane of development. Where the intellectual deficiency is very extreme, idiocy or lunacy is admitted, and the sufferer is regarded as "irresponsible"; but where he shows any comprehension of causation he is held as a criminal when he disregards law. It is not yet recognised that considerable sharpness of some intellectual qualities may co-exist with congenital deficiency of other qualities which subserve social life; or that there may be large development of sensative capacity, with stunted development of all intellectual capacity save that which serves for predatory purposes. The type of skull denominated "criminal" is well-known, and no one can visit any museum in which there is a collection of casts of criminals' heads without noticing the number which present the retreating forehead, the brutal mouth and jaw, the sloping occiput, characteristic of the class. Mr. Francis Galton, in his curious and most interesting composite photographs, has obtained some typical heads and faces from the apposition of a large number of photographs of criminals; and it is startling to see the repulsiveness which emerges, when the superposition of many pictures has destroyed all that is characteristic of the individual, and has left only the characteristics of the type.

But we have not only to rely on the general conformation of the brain for evidence of the connexion between crime and cerebral deficiency. Professor Saure, Professor Benedikt of Vienna, Dr. Flesch of Würzburg, Dr. Bordier of Paris, are quoted by Dr. Büchner in support of this thesis. Dr. Benedikt, after studying "the formation of the brain of a number of persons convicted of very serious crimes, pronounces it to have been defective in every one of them". Dr. Bordier examined the brains of 36 executed criminals, and "found that in almost all of them the parietal lobes were excessively developed at the cost of the frontal, a fact which points to a low grade of intelligence, together with a stronger tendency to violence. This is also the general condition of the brains of pre-historic men, so that its occurrence at the present day may be regarded in each instance as a case of atavism, or individual reversion to the state of former barbarism. Perfectly normal brains, according to the observer referred to, are very rare among criminals. In most of them are found asymmetry, prematurely ossified sutures, remains of old inflammation of the cerebral envelopes, an excessive fulness of blood in the vertex of the cranium, and so on" ("Force and Matter", pp. 474—476).

The results of injuries to, or disease of, normally developed brains throw much light on this question. Atrophy of the frontal convolutions leaves the sensory and motor apparatus unaffected, but is accompanied by idiocy; thus atrophy of these lobes causes a complete disappearance of intellect, while their small development is a mark of low intellectual capacity. Injury to the frontal lobes of a previously normal brain revolutionises the moral character. In the famous Phineas Gage case, in which a crowbar was sent through the frontal lobes, the man was entirely changed: "The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. … A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man." "His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again." A boy drove a knife 3¼ inches into his forehead; at the age of 21 his memory was found to be "very defective. He is incapable of applying to any pursuit requiring mental activity " (Localisation of Cerebral Disease. Ferrier. Pp. 28—31). Where injury occurs and is followed by moral degradation everyone pities and condones; who can tell how many criminals are suffering from brain-lesions, causing injuries as serious, though without external sign, as those caused by the crowbar or the knife?


Having seen that the individual is what he is in consequence of inherited tendencies and social environment, what is meant by saying that he is "responsible" to Society? Since responsibility implies possibility of punishment, "is it just", is frequently asked, "to punish a man, when he is the outcome of past, modified by present, circumstances?". The answer must depend on the meaning attached to the word responsibility, and on the nature of the punishment inflicted.

Responsibility means, literally, liability to answer; if a man, living in Society, injures Society, Society calls him to account and demands from him an answer. The "right" of Society to do so, is the right of self-preservation. Man's needs cannot be satisfied in isolation; he is a social animal, and his happiness can only be ensured by union with his fellows; this truth, deducible from man's nature, has been confirmed by human experience; history bears record that the nations among whom the bonds of social union have been close have progressed more rapidly than those among whom they have been loose. This being so, social order is a good thing, and should therefore be maintained. If a human unit objects to live in Society he can leave it, and so escape from social control; if he remains in it, enjoying its advantages, sharing in its benefits, he cannot be allowed to commit actions which rend asunder the bands holding Society together. Murder, violence, robbery, fraud, undermine the social order, and must be prevented if the social order is to be upheld. Herein lies the justification of holding the individual answerable to Society for injury committed, and of using means to prevent him from inflicting further injury. That is, there is a justification for "punishment" which is reformatory, or which is merely preventive, when reformation is impossible—as in the cases of dangerous lunatics and of other incurable criminals. There is no justification for punishment which is merely revengeful.

Next arises the question: "In what sense is punishment a reformatory agent?". We have seen that the will is determined by sensation and intellect, and if we affect these we shall affect the will. Take the case of a man who commits a theft; his will is moved to the action of stealing by the desire to possess an attractive object, and his judgment being uninformed and his imagination defective, the desire to possess proves stronger than his representation of punishment following on discovery, and his balancing of advantage and disadvantage ends in pronouncing the theft to be advantageous. The stronger motive determines the will and he steals. The theft is found out and the man is punished. Once again at liberty, a similar temptation to steal recurs. There is still the desire to possess, but the memory of the punishment now conflicts with the desire, the judgment balances the pleasure of possession and the pain of punishment, and the will is determined against the theft. Here punishment has effected its object: it has strengthened the before too weak motive, and has made for morality. The same brain, in the same environment, under the same impulses, will act in the same way; the same brain, in the same environment, under different impulses, will act in a different way. That is the rationale of punishment.

Turning to the treatment of crime in our present Society, we find it condemned by its failure as a reforming agent, as a preventive of crime. The same criminal comes back time after time to the court of justice, hardened not reformed. In December, 1884, the following paragraph appeared in many daily papers:

"Over Two Hundred Times Convicted.

"At the Edinburgh police-court to-day a woman named Jane Kirk, over forty years old, was sent to prison for disorderly conduct for the thirty-fourth time this year. Kirk has spent seven years four months and sixteen days in prison since 1871, and she has been altogether convicted 203 times for petty offences."

Jane Kirk is a typical instance: there are scores of such cases, though few perhaps are such centenarians in misdeeds as this unhappy woman. Her offences are all "petty"; she has probably only reached the monkey stage of evolution, delights in mischief, and is impatient of the restraints of civilised society. She is probably incurable now, at "over forty years" of age, but her record might have been very different had she in her early life been subjected to some reforming treatment other than the traditional "seven days ".

What ought to be done with criminals? In other words, what is the responsibility of Society to the criminal? When the first crime is committed, generally in youth, and the criminal comes into the hands of the law, the first duty to him is to educate him if he be ignorant—as most criminals are.[1] The next duty is to train him to earn an honest living by teaching him a trade, and before he is set free he should be compelled to earn by that trade the full amount which he has cost Society while in prison, and also enough to start him in his trade outside. The time necessary for this will accustom him to habits of steady industry, and in order that he may not be revolted by work, the hours of labor should not be overlong, and recreation and healthy amusement should be placed within his reach. The harshness and dulness of prison life now are certain in most cases to lead to the re-action of riot and debauchery when the prisoner is released. If the criminal had committed crime in consequence of a merely undeveloped brain, such training as that suggested would lift him out of the criminal class, and in a vast number of cases this would be found to be the fact. A habit of work and of rational enjoyment would have been acquired, and no relapse into crime would be probable.

If, however, such relapse took place, it would then be a question whether congenital cerebral deficiency was not at the root of the mischief, and whether the criminal was not, therefore, incurable. There would still remain the possibility that temporary brain-disease, some curable lesion, might be the cause of crime. In either case the sufferer should be remitted to confinement, and kept under restraint for a long term or, if necessary, for life. Just as the mental lunatic is placed in an asylum, so should be placed these moral lunatics; both suffer from cerebral disease; we have ceased to torment the ordinary lunatic with the whip and fetters, to put him in a dark cell, to feed him on bread and water; but we still use these methods with his fellow-patient, whose disease merely affects a different part of the brain, and who, unhappily for him, is suffering from a malady which is supposed to be particularly offensive to God!

Where crimes are of a brutal nature, implying a low type in the committer, it might be well to draft him from the place of restraint into the army, where the discipline would still further train the lower nature, and aid such development as it may be capable of.

In such a system as that proposed, prisons, in the present sense of the word, would be abolished. Their place would be taken by training colleges for the undeveloped natures, and asylums for the incurably diseased. All the brutalising influences of the prison would disappear, and the fallen would be helped to stand, instead of beaten because they fell.

One enormous advantage which would accrue from the adoption of such treatment as I propose would be the cessation of the manufacture of criminals. Now, some degraded criminal is turned loose from gaol, rushes back to his old haunts, drinks himself mad to celebrate his release, drags some half-drunken prostitute into his embrace, and a new life is born of the union. What can that life be save one which while it lasts is stamped with the shame and the horror of its commencement? And so criminals are bred, and Society steps in to punish, but never to prevent.

And has Society no duty of prevention ere the criminal is to be dealt with? Here, indeed, is the root treatment. "Want of understanding, poverty, and want of education, these are the three principal sources from which crime springs. The philosopher Plato was in his time keen enough to say: 'Crime has its foundation in the want of education, and in the bad training and arrangements of the State'" ("Force and Matter," pp. 473, 474). Bad houses, bad air, bad food, evil surroundings, acting on natures which inherit the results of similar conditions on past generations, must generate and foster crime. The lower strata of society must be uplifted ere criminals will lessen in number. Out of slums and back courts and alleys, out of filth and overcrowding, out of misery which maddens and destitution which destroys, up into the sunshine and the pure air, into healthy homes and bright surroundings, must come these weary victims of inhuman conditions. Crime is the fungus, growing on ordure in the darkness; it will die when its foul bed is swept away, and when sun light illumines the darkened depths.


The responsibility of the individual to Society for sin is a question surrounded by the greatest difficulties and perplexities. Many acts regarded as crimes when the race had had a briefer experience than its present one are now by some regarded only as sins, and by others even as acts useful to Society. The crime of blasphemy may serve as an apposite example. Blasphemy in the semi-barbaric stage is always stamped as a crime, and it remains still a crime among ourselves; but large numbers of people now regard it as a sin, which may be condemned by public opinion but ought not to be punishable by law; while others, again, consider that the free ventilation of every opinion is beneficial to the community, and favors, in the long run, the triumph of truth.

This change in moral judgment, due to growth, to evolution of thought, is continually giving rise to conflict between the individual and Society. A man in advance of the thought of his time comes into conflict with it, just as does a man who is behind it. The criminal and the heretic have often been found in the same gaol, from the one being an unevolved savage, and the other being too highly evolved for his surroundings. Galileo to-day is honored and admired; he was a criminal in the seventeenth century. Many to-day hold views for which they are punished, but their views will be truisms in the twentieth century. All that the individual can do, in cases in which his own moral judgment conflicts with the moral judgment of the community to which he belongs, is to test his opinion by the calmest and most unbiassed reasoning of which he is capable; this is due from him as an individual to Society; once convinced that he is right, he is bound to hold to his opinion, despite all abuse and all penalty.

In addition to this group of ethical dissenters from the orthodox creed, there is always a group of which the individuals act against the publicly-received morality, not from conviction but from moral debility. The profligate, the drunken, the liars, the hypocrites, do not act under the belief that profligacy, drunkenness, lying, and hypocrisy, are good and ought to be practised as moral duties. They admit them to be evil, although they do them, and their conduct is the result of indifference or of moral incapacity.

How should Society treat these two groups, differing so essentially in moral strength and moral standpoint? To the first, it should yield complete liberty, showing no displeasure towards, imposing no social penalty on, those who differ from itself in their moral judgments. Recognising that in the past the dissentient minority has often been right, and that all progress in morality, as in all else, must be initiated by variations from the ordinary type, it will leave all such free to develop their theories, to live after their convictions, leaving time to show whether the variations survive, being on the line of progress, or die out as useless aberrant types.

To the second class, to those who, receiving the general morality in theory, act against it in practice, Society should show other face. Here social disapproval, social ostracism if need be, should come in to strengthen the weak will. As legal penalty for crime, so is social penalty for sin justifiable. It supplements the criminal law, and serves as protest against conduct which is indirectly harmful to Society. Legal penalty guards Society against direct, social penalty against indirect, attacks on the general good. Both are weapons necessary to self-defence, and both are liable to abuse. Only education, moderation, rationality, can ensure increasing wisdom in law and in public opinion, and manifold injustices will be committed while the mental evolution of individuals in Society differs as much as it does to-day.

Nor must it be forgotten, as Herbert Spencer has so well pointed out, that the moral code must be consonant with the moral ideal. In our Society, in which two ideals are struggling for the mastery, a coherent and generally recognised code of morals is not practicable. So long as a large part of Society accepts an ideal of internal competitive, and external militant, struggle, it cannot adopt the code of morals accepted by those whose ideal is co-operative progress both within and without each separate society. The ideals of conflict and of peace can never become identical, and while these two ideals, the ideal of the past and the ideal of the future, struggle for mastery in the present, ethics must remain in the transitory state in which we find it to-day. We are in the midst of one of those epochs during which the race passes from one stage of evolution to another. Happy those who, in the swirl of conflicting tendencies, can recognise, and aid in the development of, those that are being born, amid those which die.

  1. The City Press says that last year not fewer than 1,028 prisoners passed through the Clerkenwell Prison who could neither read nor write.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1933, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 88 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.