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In a rather self-satisfied way, from time to time I ask the readers of this blog to listen to me on the radio.So it is only fair that I now alert you to the chance to hear me getting things badly wrong.  You can do this by tuning into the repeat of yesterday’s Moral Maze (you can also use BBC ‘listen again’).

Taking its cue from Kenneth Clarke’s article about the feral underclass and the failings of criminal justice, the subject was supposed to be prisons but soon drifted into the general question of whether to understand, or simply to punish, criminality.  I suspect I wasn’t in the best frame of mind from the outset but then I found myself up against three other panellists who were totally disinclined to blame criminality on anything other than simple badness, exacerbated only by a welfare dependency. When Michael Portillo suggested that people steal things primarily because - through the malign beneficence of the welfare state - they have been inculcated into an assumption that they get everything for free, he spoke also for fellow panellists Melanie Phillips and Claire Fox

In the law and order debate the ‘condemn and punish’ position is always easier and quicker to articulate than ‘understand and rehabilitate’. So it was that in the very constrained time allowed to make a case on ‘Maze’ I found it impossible to get beyond sounding like a soft headed bleeding heart liberal. The particular low point involved me cross examining David Green from Civitas.

My plan was to start by asking him whether he would make a moral distinction between someone who stole soup to feed their starving family and a millionaire who did so because he liked the smell.  The plan was to move from this to make the case – given the much greater likelihood that certain acts of criminality are performed by people from disadvantaged backgrounds – that we should, at the level of the individual, qualify our instinct to condemn with a responsibility to understand and help, and, at the social level, (as the political cliche has it) commit to tackle the causes of crime as well as crime itself.

But when David seemed unwilling even to accept the implications of my thought experiment and then went on to use the example of a heroic victim of the Holocaust to argue that whatever deprivation an individual has suffered they should be condemned if they err, I lost it. As Barbara said to me this morning, ‘you are usually so reasonable on the Maze. What happened to you?’

I am sure some of it was down to my mood and knowing I was losing the argument, but it was also disorientation at where the centre of gravity of this debate seems now to have moved. Maybe it was just the circles I moved in but, say, twenty years ago it seem to be taken for granted that poverty and unemployment created the circumstances which fostered criminality, drug abuse and other forms of anti-social and self-harming behaviour. There were starting to be concerns about the role that welfare dependency played in undermining responsibility - and in time these led to a growing consensus about the need for conditionality (something for something) in benefits - but the social explanation was still widely accepted.

But now it seems any suggestion that we might look beyond individual culpability to social circumstances is – and this was another reason I lost it with David – immediately described as social determinism. Any attempt to bring in social context is disingenuously caricatured as excusing badness on the grounds that the only reason people do bad things is that they are poor or, worse, that all poor people are incapable of moral judgment. But this is like saying that because someone thinks smoking cigarettes increases the likelihood of lung cancer they think everyone who smokes will die this way. One of the characteristics of those who reject social explanations is to treat any attempt to use statistics as mere sophistry.

The final straw in my abject performance was when the general issue of crime and society segued into discussion of the recent riots. In fact, I think much of the explanation for the riots is sui generis,  not just individual weakness nor economic circumstance but also the specific social epidemic nature of mass acts of disobedience.

The balance between condemning and understanding is difficult to get right and so is that between punishment and rehabilitation. I certainly failed to find that balance last night but as I read today of yet more ways of punishing poor offenders and, in the same news cycle more evidence that many parts of the UK are close to being economically dead, I can’t help wondering how we can try to develop an account of wrongdoing which integrates both the need for individual responsibility and for tackling social deprivation.

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