Posted: July 15, 2014
A review of Crime and Human Nature, by James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein
ince the beginning of the nineteenth century, three broad perspectives have contributed to explanations of crime. Early in the century, crime was thought to be the inevitable product of urban squalor, poor parenting, pauperism, and the unwillingness of new immigrants to conform to American society. From the middle of the century until the 1950s, the dominant view was that crime is the symptom of individual psychological flaws that require probing and treatment. Finally, a theory of environmental causation emerged in which crime is attributed to social conditions whose cause is structural flaws in the economy over which ordinary individuals have no control.
According to these explanations, crime is the result either of conditions external to the offender or of his being an abnormal psychological type. In either case, the logical consequence is identical: Offenders should neither be held responsible nor punished for their criminal acts. In Crime and Human Nature, James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein demonstrate that punishment is a justifiable response to crime in spite of the attack made by social science on the concepts of free action and individual responsibility. They argue that the principal causes of crime are not an offender's abnormal psychology (or biology) or his environment. Rather, they assert that crime is a result of those unchanging aspects of human nature that make any human act possible. In other words, crime is a manifestation of the same human nature that produces acts of greatness.
Wilson and Herrnstein begin by articulating their own theory of crime. In their view, "[a] person will do that thing the consequences of which are perceived by him or her to be preferable to the consequences of doing something else" (p. 43). Societies and individuals, they continue, attach various positive and negative reinforcements to different crimes. Psychological, environmental, and biological factors help to explain why "individuals differ in the value they assign to such reinforcements and the degree to which they discount them over time" (p. 56). The important point, however, is that individuals choose to attach certain values to various reinforcements. The critical question in explaining crime, according to Wilson and Herrnstein, is why some individuals consistently place a low value on society's negative reinforcements of crime. In particular, they ask, why is this phenomenon most prevalent among young males?
Three-fourths of the book consists of a discussion of what social scientists know about crime. The authors examine current knowledge on the influence of constitutional (gender, age, intelligence, personality, and psychopathology), developmental (families, schools), social (community, labor markets, television, substance abuse), and historical and cultural factors on crime. These chapters are extremely useful for students of crime and represent the best recent compilation of contemporary theories of crime.
We are reminded, for example, that women in all cultures commit crimes much less frequently than men and that criminal activity drops off rapidly with age. We also learn that men with certain body types are more likely than others to commit crimes; that there is a relationship between intelligence and criminal activity; and that the link between unemployment and crime is much more complex than is generally thought Wilson and Herrnstein's contribution to this literature is to examine these relationships and to reflect on how they might influence an individual's valuation of the consequences of crime.
Although significant in itself, the most interesting aspect of Crime and Human Nature is not its survey of current theories of crime. The book distinguishes itself from other similar works in drawing conclusions about human nature from the study of crime. In Wilson and Herrnstein's view, recent advances in our understanding of crime produce a paralyzing contradiction at the core of the criminal justice system between science and free action. This contradiction weakens the system's capacity to respond adequately to crime. Their solution is to concede that traditional notions of free action are untenable, suggesting that a new conception of personal responsibility is required which takes advantage of these advances in knowledge (p. 507). Thus, Wilson and Herrnstein resist the temptation to conclude that science renders criminal responsibility and punishment impossible. They argue that the "progress made toward explaining criminality does not reduce the need for punishment, it only enables us to think more clearly about how punishment might work on people who commit, or might commit, crimes" (p. 490).
Wilson and Herrnstein's argument at this point can be characterized in the following way. Modern science, especially as applied to criminality, reveals that theories of human nature emphasizing absolute notions of free action are flawed. This does not force the conclusion that individuals are not responsible to a large degree for their actions. Rather, it indicates the need for a more refined theory of human nature, the objective of the final chapter.
The book's last chapter summarizes their argument in the following way:
. . . there is a human nature that develops in intimate settings out of a complex interaction of constitutional and social factors, and . . . this nature affects how people choose between the consequences of crime and its alternatives. (p. 508)
This argument is then used to assess the two views of human nature most frequently held by modern criminologists. The first view is derived from Hobbes and considers man as a self-seeking rational calculator. The second view is taken from Rousseau and asserts that man is naturally good, that he will realize his goodness if social arrangements are decent, and that he will be corrupted if these arrangements are defective.
For Wilson and Herrnstein, these views represent two sides of the same coin. The Hobbesian view sees man as a natural criminal who must be constrained by social arrangements; the Rousseauian position understands man as a natural innocent who is driven to crime by social institutions. Both views are defective because they minimize the importance of personal responsibility. In both cases, the responsibility for crime lies in faulty social organization. In the Hobbesian case, the fault is the failure to constrain man's natural impulses properly. In the Rousseauian case, it is a failure to avoid the corruption of man's innocence.
The strength of Crime and Human Nature is its reliance on Aristotle for a third theory of human nature. While Wilson and Herrnstein point out that Aristotle is largely ignored by criminologists, they do not discuss the relationship between criminology and modern philosophy. The scientific study of crime is an invention of the eighteenth century and owes its rapid development to Jeremy Bentham's musings on social reform. Modern philosophy's contribution is the understanding of human nature as either wholly submissive to the appetites or completely determined by social influences. This leads to a world-view in which crime is experienced as the result of causes over which individuals have little control, rather than as a free moral act for which one must be held responsible. Bentham's contribution was to imagine a world in which the causes of social disorder are eliminated.
Criminology emerged from these two desires to identify the causes of crime and to develop techniques for eradicating those causes. Consequently, the modern scientific approach to crime is corrective rather than punitive. Criminology's object of study is not the offense as such, but the offender. The scientific study of crime is, in essence, the scientific study of criminals. Under the influence of modern philosophy, however, the study of criminals is further reduced to the study of the environment of criminals. This is readily apparent in the academic status of criminology as a subdiscipline within sociology.
Crime and Human Nature's quarrel with criminology is not with the claim that students of crime should concern themselves with criminals. Rather, the dispute is with the assumption that criminology reveals more about a criminal's environment than about the criminal himself. Wilson and Herrnstein imply that an Aristotelian perspective permits criminologists to understand this aspect of their work. Indeed, Wilson and Herrnstein draw an analogy between Aristotle's discovery of human nature through reflections on slavery and their similar discovery through reflections on crime. They emphasize the importance of familial and political associations to the development of man's capacity to act freely and independently. These associations are formed naturally in order to nurture just actions, the end of which is happiness. Wilson and Herrnstein's point is that family life and political community exist in order to teach the distinction between justice and injustice.
Unfortunately, Crime and Human Nature devotes only three pages to Aristotle's thought, resulting in a truncated resistance to mainstream criminology. It also, I believe, fails to address the most critical aspect of Aristotle's teaching with respect to individual responsibility. This aspect is the importance of choice (prohairesis) in Aristotle's enumeration of the distinctly human qualities throughout the Nicomachean Ethics. Human beings, by their very nature, must constantly choose among courses of action, and one of the great lessons of the Ethics is that there is not an infinite number of equally "valuable" choices-some choices are superior to others. The essential question is not, as it is for modern criminology, how to limit or manipulate the human capacity to choose. This is neither possible nor desirable since choice is rooted in human nature. Rather, the crucial issue is what choices will receive public approval or disapproval. This is perhaps the most important reason for defending the concept of individual responsibility. Without a notion of responsibility, neither approval nor disapproval is possible.
Implicit in Wilson and Herrnstein's book is the assertion that criminal justice policy should be equally as concerned with questions of just and unjust regimes as it is with reducing recidivism rates or increasing deterrence. In this respect, Crime and Human Nature raises important questions about the "economization" of public policy analysis. For the most part, contemporary policy studies evade any serious reflection on the proper ends of government; at most, reference is made to "empirical" political theory. This is unfortunate, since the policy sciences, when properly grounded in such considerations, have much to offer. Policy analysts would do well to heed Wilson and Herrnstein's admonition that "any serious social inquiry must begin with an understanding of human nature" (p. 19).