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Ethics and Morality

The Criminal Views Himself as a Good Person

Discounting the evil, criminals assert their decency.

"If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn't live," said one murderer.

"Just because I killed someone doesn't mean I'm a bad person," asserted another.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery in my early years of trying to understand the criminal mind was that, without exception, offenders regard themselves as good human beings. No matter how long their trail of carnage, no matter what suffering they caused others, every one of them retained the view that he is a good person.

Understanding the criminal's self-perception

How does a one-man walking crime wave retain the view that he is good at heart? There are many components to this perception. Some point to their daily activities of going to school or working as evidence. Others cite their religious practices: reading the Bible, attending church, wearing a religious symbol. Because of their talents, they are "good people." Some are artistic, play musical instruments, fashion quality products in a woodshop, and so forth. When others commend them for their creativity, their sense of being a good person is enhanced.

Another component in the offender's view of his own decency is that, no matter how tough he is, there exists within him a deep well of sentiment. I recalled a murderer who would not step on a bug because he could not bring himself to kill a living thing.

Nearly all affirm that there are others who do terrible things they would never do. Those people are the criminals. "Anyone who knocks a little old lady down on the street and steals her purse should be hung," declared one teenager. Yet this same youth invaded a home while the owner was present, terrorized her, and cleared out some of her most valuable belongings. But that was acceptable because, as he pointed out, he did not physically hurt her. "Anyone who messes with little kids should be put to death," remarked another offender who had committed a brutal rape.

The role of remorse

The capacity to experience remorse supports this view of inner goodness. I recall a man who broke into a woman's home and made off with jewelry and priceless heirlooms. When he learned the victim was suffering from a terminal illness, he returned everything he stole. The remorse he felt in this one situation bolstered his view of how compassionate a person he was. It did not deter him from other break-ins.

Men and women who evaluate and counsel offenders must understand that, no matter how terrible their crimes, criminals regard themselves as good people. They already hold themselves in high esteem. We should not seek to raise their already lofty opinions of themselves but, instead, must endeavor to help them look in the mirror and see themselves as the predators they are.

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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