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Moral Imbecility

  • Ian D. Suttie (a1)

There is a type of social psychology which finds the explanation of man's social behaviour in a hypothetical “disposition” of his mind. This motive-complex is conceived as specialized for the function of adapting conduct to social life, and as being in itself relatively closely integrated, developing and functioning as a whole. Of this hypothetical “gregarious instinct” McDougall goes so far as to say: “For it is highly probable that instinctive dispositions are Mendelian units” (Journ of Abn. Psych, and Soc. Psych., vol. xvi, p. 316). This plainly suggests that the unity of the social disposition (its existence as a discrete factor in development) is to be regarded as antedating experience—that it is an ultimate datum for psychology not susceptible to analysis, and is not a derivative of any other known motive such as “love,” “fear,” or “hope of reward.” This “instinct” interpretation of social behaviour has been criticized on many grounds (as unfruitful for psychology and incompatible with biological fact); but of course the demonstration of a Mendelian transmission of the social disposition would compel us to regard it as an element of character. Our conception of mental development and of the “socialization” of the individual, of the relative significance of upbringing as compared with organic endowment and our whole psycho-pathology depend upon our acceptance or rejection of McDougall's view. If he is right in regard to the germinal “unit” determination of the social disposition, criminological studies should offer verification. I propose, therefore, to consider how far we are justified in regarding moral insanity and moral imbecility as true “morbid entities.”

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(1) See, however, Burt, Cyril, “Delinquency and Mental Defect,” Brit. Journ. Med. Psych., 1923, p. 169.
(2) It will, of course, be asserted as usual that no one supports the utilitarian ethical theory, etc. Both in writings and in testimony, however, there is abundant evidence of the belief that the folly of wrong-doing connotes defect of intelligence.
(3) It is interesting to note that the early Norse settlers of Iceland recognized the special gravity of an unavowed manslaughter (Saga of Burnt Njal), If the killer avowed the deed he had to reckon merely with the blood feud and was not despised. If he did not declare himself he was a murderer —an offender against public security.
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The British Journal of Psychiatry
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  • EISSN: 2514-9946
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Moral Imbecility

  • Ian D. Suttie (a1)
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