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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Liveblogging Wood: Those Poor Criminals!

Many conservatives feel that recently -- since Freud? since behaviourism? since the 1960s? -- our society has "gone soft" on criminals, because we tend to treat crime as a disease or social problem, rather than a moral failing. Well, if by recently, they mean the 1790s, they may have a point:
If the characters of people were produced by their environment, as Lockean liberal thinking suggested, perhaps criminals were not entirely responsible for their actions. Maybe impious and cruel parents of the criminal were at fault, or maybe even the whole society was to blame. "We all must plead guilty before the bar of conscience as having had some share in corrupting the morals of the community, and levelling the highway to the gallows,@ declared a New Hampshire minister in 1796... "Let every criminal, then, be considered a person laboring under an infectious disorder," said one writer in 1790. "Mental disease is the cause of all crimes." (The Idea of America, pp. 282-283)

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