Examining how to help stop paedophiles

Paedophiles who commit sexual offences against children are probably the most hated and reviled group in society. They are generally regarded as uniquely evil and the vast majority of people believe that they should receive punishment that reflects this. Frequently, when particularly obnoxious crimes have been committed and highlighted by the media, many people demand the return of the death penalty as the only real “justice” sufficient to repay the offender’s debt to society. Such hatred and lack of compassion misunderstands (as does our entire system of justice, crime and punishment) crucial facts about our existence.

Given the culture that exists, it is almost obligatory for me to begin by stating the obvious: the acts and consequences of sexual offences committed against children (or anyone for that matter) are repugnant and reprehensible. I by no means wish to condone or defend the actions of paedophiles, nor do I wish to question the scale nor belittle the suffering of victims. I hope this would be obvious. The point of this article is to try to understand why these events occur in the hope that with a better understanding we can try to minimize their occurrence.

The whole concept that paedophiles are classed as “criminals”, alongside fraudsters and thieves, is bizarre. It is not that in a lawless society we would all do these things and that the law is necessary to stop us. If having sex with children was suddenly legalised, I doubt there is a sizable population of individuals who currently want to have sex with children, but don’t on the basis of its legal status. I also believe that it is impossible for a healthy individual to have these desires (which is a tautology given that presence of these desires in an individual would preclude the label “healthy”), leading to the conclusion that far from being “evil”, these individuals are actually ill and/or damaged.

Many people dislike the way that modern neuroscience and psychiatry has re-branded a variety of behaviours thought historically to be due to sinfulness or a lack of moral character (addiction, obesity, ADHD, schizophrenia), as illnesses. I believe this view comes from a misunderstanding of how the brain, our consciousness and indeed the world, work and interact. This classical view believes that throughout your life and development, you exert effort and make decisions based upon some sort of “soul” which is “you” and determines your moral character. Your “soul” is the ghost in the machine which receives input about your environment from your sense organs, thinks about what to do, and then dictates what actions it wants the body to perform via your nervous system. There are a number of problems with this view of things, both in terms of the empirical evidence presented by modern neuroscience and our rational understanding of logic and physical reality (i.e. the way things seem to be, and the potential ways that it’s possible for things to be).

Firstly, we do not control the circumstances of our birth (as far as its possible to know) and thus our genetics and the primary environment that we exist within. As everything which ever happens to you in life is a direct result of this, it poses a problem for the idea that we determine our own destiny. Secondly, one’s “character”, which supposedly determines decision making, is itself determined by our environment, history and biology, all of which again directly relate to the first point. Finally, to truly have free will, human beings would require the ability to manipulate the laws of physics and our nervous system would need to act in a non-deterministic manner. This is because in a deterministic world, matter acts according to cause and effect. At any specific moment in time, the circumstances are the direct result of the moment before it, back to the beginning of time. Whilst we hubristically consider the human body and mind to be sacred, in reality they are (like all organisms) just very complex machines. As such, they act and exist according to the chemistry of the physical matter of which they comprise. Our nervous system takes inputs, processes and modulates them with our emotions and memories (themselves physically determined) and produces a particular output. Whilst specific non-deterministic findings have been observed at the quantum level, they do little to rescue human free will. Whether god pushes a domino or rolls a die, our fate is beyond our control.

A corollary of all this, is that there is really no tangible, constant “you” that exists (i.e. some sort of “soul” or ghost in the machine). The cognition (thoughts) which seems to make us who we are, is simply determined by biology. This can be easily demonstrated by the change in character produced when specific chemicals (psychoactive drugs) are administered to individuals, or in patients who suffer strokes or brain damage. A particularly apposite example of such biological determinism is of the schoolteacher who started having paedophilic thoughts and was later found to have a tumour in a part of the brain associated with impulse control. Upon removal of the tumour the troubling thoughts ceased for a time, however slowly began to return. It was then subsequently found that the man’s tumour had returned, and after once again removing it, the surgeons were able to “cure” him of his paedophilia.

Thus free will is really just an illusion, as is the concept of fairness in our criminal justice system, seeing as how our entire concept of criminal law and justice relies on individuals having the autonomy to decide their actions. If an individual’s criminality is merely the product of their biological and environmental history, it seems cruel and unfair to punish them for it. A common response to this argument is similar to “they know the difference between right and wrong and they chose to do wrong, therefore they are evil”. Whilst the individual may or may not understand the morality of their actions, due to the laws of physics, given one prior set of events, there can only be one future set of events. Even if somebody struggles with their conscience for days or weeks before deciding on a course of action, they were always destined to take such a course and indeed, could only have done so.

People often find the idea that we do not control our destinies difficult to deal with. There is a tendency to believe that it diminishes our achievements and negates responsibility. The fact is though that it doesn’t matter what one believes, these things are decided by processes at levels far beyond your control. To quote an old song, “What will be, will be”. I only wish people would stop being quite so smug and judgmental towards others and consider that everything we experience in life is essentially determined by luck. It is not evil, nor inherent immorality that leads to criminality of any kind, including paedophilia. It is a specific set of tragic circumstances that are the cause, and which by the nature of having happened, nobody could have influenced.

If we wish to prevent these tragedies, we need to understand what the factors are that lead to their occurrence. For example, a large proportion of paedophiles have been sexually abused themselves. Therefore therapy which aims to identify individuals at risk of displaying dangerous behaviours in order to intervene with help and support is important. Of course if these people pose a threat to children, then they need to be segregated in humane conditions until they are no longer dangerous. However rather than treating these individuals as evil pariahs, we need to understand that they are members and products of our society and that no amount of hatred and punishment will make the problem go away. It is our responsibility to help and care for these people. By doing so, we will prevent further tragedies from occurring and start to break the cycle of deprivation. Whilst we are unable to control of our destiny, perhaps the realisation of these truths can be the catalyst which promotes our evolution to a more just and caring society.