Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
Are criminals worse than other people?
[From: Mortals and Others, v.1, 1975.］
One of the most annoying things about the modern world is that it is so much less simple than it used to be. The world used to be divided sharply into honest men and rogues; honest men kept the law, rogues broke it. Rogues, though they might prosper for a while, invariably came to a bad end ; some honest men might fail to become rich, but this was considered exceptional, as was shown by the phrase 'honest though poor'.
In such a world no one suffered from the doubts and hesitations and the blurring of sharp lines which cause modern men to vacillate. A long course of rebellious writers have tried to persuade us that it is the wicked who prosper and that the rich, even if they do break the law are not at all likely to be punished for doing so. Every student of history or sociology must be struck by the fact that the men who do the most harm are not the sort of criminals who are sent to prison but the sort to whom equestrian statues are put up. And so one is led to ask oneself in all seriousness: are criminals any worse than other people ? And if not, what is the peculiarity which leads to their being sent to prison?
There was a period during the war when I associated habitually with criminals. I cannot say that I found anything peculiarly dislikeable about them. They fell into various classes. There were debtors who had been ordered by a judge to pay more than they possessed and had therefore been sent to prison for contempt of court. There was a rich, blind lawyer, seventy years of age, who had gone to gaol for bigamy. There was a fine, upstanding soldier who had been sentenced with what he thought undue severity for returning five minutes late from leave and had thereupon vowed that he would not do another hand's turn of fighting for the authorities: in order to keep this vow, he had made a point of stealing whisky whenever he was released from prison, which, however, occurred with increasing rarity. Then there was a fat, cheerful, good-natured fellow, who was a connoisseur in prisons and always chose his gaol with care; his reason for a criminal career was that only in prison could he escape from his wife. Then there was a man who had been for seventeen years an officer of the Salvation Army, whose boy had been fined for coming late to school; the Salvationist considered that the fine had been inflicted from malice and therefore refused to pay it ; he was, however, persuaded that the Lord had led him to that place for a wise purpose. In addition to these desperate ruffians, there were three members of the Soviet Government and a large number of men who considered it their duty to obey the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.(Note: Some of the people imprisoned with Russell were conscientious objectors) On the whole, the people I met in prison seemed to me more agreeable companions than the members of the best clubs.
There are however, two types of criminals who certainly are undesirable: they are the men who are exceptionally violent and the men who are exceptionally cunning. Murderers and forgers may be taken as representing these two types. In the case of the murderer there is, of course, an element of bad luck ; almost anybody might become a murderer given sufficient provocation, but most of us have the good fortune never to be sufficiently provoked. Men differ greatly, however, as regards the degree of provocation necessary to lead them to crimes of violence. Ungovernable rage is a psychological aberration and should be treated by the psychiatrist ; it is a mark of disease s rather than of wickedness.
The forger and the fraudulent company promoter belong to a different category; they differ from other men chiefly by the fact that they are more optimistic; they take the chance of detection more readily than other men because temperamentally they overestimate the probabilities in their favour. This is attributable partly to an education in boosting(shoplifting) and partly to unduly healthy grounds. The treatment to which they should be subjected is a course of Schopenhauer and lobster salad, to cure them simultaneously of optimism and good digestion.
To prevent crime there are therefore two requisites : one is to make crime contrary to self-interest, and this is a matter for the criminal law and the police ; the other is to give men that degree of self-control and sound judgement which will enable them to act in accordance with their own interests - this is a matter for the psychologist. But in neither department has the moralist anything useful to contribute.