by Jay Johansen | Feb 3, 1998
Liberals often say that we cannot hold the criminal accountable for his actions, because his behavior is simply the product of his environment. Therefore, the law must treat him leniently. Often they go on to say that we could reduce the crime if only our society and our legal system would show compassion and understanding to people who are driven to such anti-social behavior by their environment.
For example, a few years ago there were riots in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Commentator after commentator came on television to explain to us that we should not criticize the riotors, because their actions were caused by the poverty in which they lived and the discrimination they suffered. As one
commentator most memorably put it, "Do not judge, but try to understand."
And indeed, our justice system today routinely does seek such understanding. People accused of crimes are regularly set free, not because they were able to prove that they were innocent, or even cast serious doubt on the question that they did, indeed, commit the crime, but rather because they proved in court that they had troubled childhoods or suffered from poverty.
But the really curious thing about this argument is that the conclusion does not in any way follow from the premise.
The whole point of the argument is that it is a rebuttal to the notion of individual moral accountability. The "conservative" view of man as a free moral being, who is capable of making decisions for himself and taking responsibility for them, is rejected. Instead, we are told that man is the product of his environment. Free will is an illusion. Man acts purely in response to the various environmental factors which he experiences.
Now, we could raise a quibble here, that most liberals are quite inconsistent in actually applying this standard. They tell us that poor people and minorities inevitably turn to crime and violence because of the terrible environment in which they live. It would logically follow, then, that upper class white males, who do not experience any of these corrupting factors, must be the most morally pure and trustworthy people around. But the liberals insist that this is not the case, that upper class white males are an evil and depraved lot. How can this be?
Similarly, recall the Rodney King case again. The liberals all rushed out to defend the riotors, and say they could not be held responsible for their actions. But in the very next breadth they called for punishment of the policeman who beat Mr King. Many of them went on to talk about the pervasive environment of racism and brutality that filled the Los Angeles police department. But if the environment of the poor neighborhood made it improper to condemn rioting, then by the same reasoning, should not the environment of the Los Angeles police department make it improper to condemn police brutality? Why is it that liberals routinely excuse rioting and burglary and murder on environmental grounds, but are quick to call for harsh penalties for police brutality and hate crimes and profiteering?
But let's ignore the inconsistancy for the moment and get back to the root argument.
We could sum the argument up like this: People commit anti-social acts not because of any failed internal moral compass, but simply in response to the environment in which they live. Therefore, we should create an environment in which there is no condemnation or penalty for anti-social behavior.
To put it another way: People commit crimes because their environment pressures them to do it. Therefore, we should eliminate anything in the environment that might pressure them not to commit crimes.
This simply makes no sense at all. If you really believe that people are mindless robots who respond mechanically if the right buttons are pushed, then the obvious conclusion would surely be that we should create a society in which the right buttons are pushed. Perhaps one could construct complex sets of stimuli, but there is surely a much simpler and more obvious solution: Good behavior should be rewarded, and bad behavior should be punished. The more strongly you believe in the power of the environment to shape behavior, the more you should favor harsh penalties for the smallest infraction.
If people really have no free will, no inner compass, than it is pointless to try to appeal to their conscience. Mercy, tolerance, and understanding are futile and stupid. A brutal police state is the only possible route to Utopia.
The orthodox Christian view, of course, is quite different. It says that people are capable of making decisions on a purely moral basis, without regard to consequences. It says that even the worst sinner can be redeemed. Punishment may serve as a deterrent to crime, and that is an important function. But punishment also serves as a reminder to all that sin is sin. We hope that the fear of prison will frighten the potential criminal away from harming innocent people. But we pray that time in prison will lead the criminal to an awful awareness of the evil of what he has done, and drive him to repentance. Being robbed of $100 can be a hard blow to someone's finances. But robbing someone of $100 is a brutal attack on one's soul.
Understanding and mercy make sense if -- and only if -- we believe that people can reform from within.
A liberal who really believes what he is saying and thinks it out logically must inevitably be a tyrant. A Christian who really believes what he is saying and thinks it out logically must inevitably mix mercy with justice, and compassion with accountability.
© 1998 by Jay Johansen