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Phillip E. Johnson


Those Madcap Menendez Boys

During the last two centuries, the dominant intellectual culture has discarded a theistic understanding of human nature and replaced it with a naturalistic understanding. Once upon a time we thought that humans were moral agents created in the image of a supernatural God, with a divine gift of freedom and a knowledge of God's moral order written on our hearts. Now we think otherwise if we obediently follow our cultural leaders. Twentieth-century science teaches us that our thoughts and actions are the products of our genetic endowment and our cultural environment. Naturalistic thinkers may disagree about the relative importance of biology as opposed to culture, but they agree that who we are and what we do is explained by some combination of nature and nurture. What else is there?

We might have expected such an intellectual revolution to affect the criminal law, and it has done so. Earlier ages felt comfortable with the idea that a murderer deserves to die because he has deliberately taken the life of another to further his own selfish ends. Modernists think otherwise. The murderer acted as he did because of some genetic predisposition, or because he was abused as a child or otherwise mistreated by society. For modernists, crime is a social problem like disease, which a rational society seeks to mitigate by identifying and treating the "root causes."

James Q. Wilson, the well-known political scientist whose previous books include Thinking About Crime and The Moral Sense, is himself a thoroughgoing modernist who nonetheless rejects the fruits of modernism in the criminal law. He attacks expansions of the insanity defense and other psychological defenses like the "battered wife syndrome" that have allowed killers to escape punishment because "they couldn't help it." Beware of social scientists bearing syndromes, he warns; they are usually peddling junk science.

Although many of Wilson's criticisms of specific doctrines are sensible, the picture he paints of the overall state ...

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