Friday, 26 July 2013

Getting away with Murder?

Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment[i] features Raskolnikov - a highly intelligent man who begins to question morality and wonders why he should do as society dictates.  He longs to become a ‘superman’ character with the power to break free and rise above the moral restraints that bind all of humanity. Raskolnikov begins by callously committing two murders, he kills an old woman and her half sister, but interestingly, almost immediately, he begins to wrestle with something he had not accounted for… his conscience:

“The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she’s not the point! The old woman was merely a sickness . . . I was in a hurry to step over . . . it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle! So I killed the principle, but I didn’t step over, I stayed on this side . . . All I managed to do was kill. And I didn’t even manage that, as it turns out . . .”  (Part III, chapter VI)

Raskolnikov proves that even when the natural moral law is violated the principle stating that it is wrong to kill remains firmly in tact. With his conscience raging within him he begins to drown in guilt and quickly realises that his efforts to silence his conscience are futile. He has risen up against an opponent much stronger than himself.

Frances Shaeffer said in one of his lectures that we can do away with morality, and many people do, but we can’t do away with damnation – meaning that we can intellectually reject morality, we can rebel against it, we can violate the natural moral law, but we can’t escape the consequences of doing this or the accusations of our own conscience.

The natural moral law that Raskolnikov has violated is so powerful that Petrovich, the local magistrate investigating the murders, knows he can’t escape and says:

What is it, to run away! A mere formality; that’s not the main thing; no, he won’t run away on me by a law of nature, even if he has somewhere to run to. Have you ever seen a moth near a candle? Well, so he’ll keep circling around me, circling around me, as around a candle; freedom will no longer be dear to him, he’ll fall to thinking, get entangled, he’ll tangle himself all up as in a net, he’ll worry himself to death!”  (Part IV chapter V)

I recently read a fascinating essay by Steve L. Porter[ii] that contrasts Dostoevsky’s original mid nineteenth century Crime and Punishment with Woody Allen’s retelling of the story in his late twentieth century movie, Crimes and Misdemeanours. I’ve never seen the movie, but Porter observes how much the cultural context has changed over the years. The film insists that protagonist, Dr. Rosenthal, who commits a murder, can get away with it and avoid punishment – he even enjoys peace of mind over his crime. Rosenthal is perhaps the ‘superman’ of Raskolnikov’s dreams, but perhaps, like the man that came from the planet Krypton, he too is just a fantasy figure.

In the 1960’s, before I was born, the now notorious ‘Moors Murderers’, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady murdered a number of children and buried them on the Moors. Throughout my lifetime the media has intermittently referred to these murders via news items and documentaries. I wondered if Petrovich’s words about the working of the conscience bore out in the lives of these child murderers…after all it had been more than 40 years now. I already knew that Myra Hindley had allegedly become a practicing catholic whilst in prison, and regardless of whether or not her faith was genuine it is clear that she, like Raskolnikov, couldn’t shake off her conscience and vehemently wished she had been hung for her crimes saying:

“…I would have made a total confession to the priest before I hanged and would not still be half crippled by the burden of guilt that will not go away. But I didn't hang."[iii]

Hindley died in 2002 at the age of 60, after 36 years in prison, but what about Brady? Did he feel remorse?

As I began to research Ian Brady I was fascinated to discover that a hero of his, and a person he modelled himself on, was none other than Raskolnikov! Brady believed he had "reached the stage where, whatever came to mind, [he could] get out and do it” and insisted that he “led the life that other people could only think about.” [iv] Fiona Steele, author of Murder on the Moors, writes: “Dostoevsky's novel had become for Brady, not an exploration of the destructiveness of unrestrained ego, but a justification for, and ennobling of his own degraded fantasies.”[v]

From everything I had read it appeared that Brady was without remorse for his crimes, although interestingly in 1978, during his first public statement, he stated that he would not be asking for parole because he accepted  ‘the weight of the crimes both Myra and I were convicted of justifies permanent imprisonment, regardless of expressed personal remorse and verifiable change."[vi]

Whilst Brady did not appear to have any guilt over his crimes he 
clearly had a conscience. He knew he deserved permanent imprisonment. Professor J. Budziszewski claims that people often mistake guilt for conscience. Conscience is knowledge.  There is a big difference between guilty feelings and guilty knowledge. Guilty feelings can be repressed, they can be rationalized away and, in the case of psychopaths, may not even exist at all, but guilty knowledge remains. Budziszewski cites a local newspaper article he remembered reading once when a murderer claimed to have no guilty feelings whatsoever over his crime and remarked, ‘there must be something wrong with me, don’t you think?’[vii]

It is also interesting to note that since October 1999 Ian Brady has been on hunger strike and has been in court pleading for the right to die. I was particularly struck by his comments when his plea was eventually denied,

“Myra gets the potentially fatal brain condition, whilst I have to fight simply to die. I have had enough. I want nothing, my objective is to die and release myself from this once and for all.”[viii]

It is my belief that God has designed and created us to have 
knowledge of the natural moral law. ‘Natural’ because we come with it ‘built in’ as an integral part of our biological programming, and ‘law’ because it is binding and has authority.

Very few would argue that Ian Brady has done nothing wrong. 
Most people refer to him as ‘evil’ – but is this because morality is a social construct and Brady has broken the rules of our game of life? If an overwhelming majority of people suddenly decided that they too wanted to throw off the ‘petty restraints’ that control our behaviour – would Brady suddenly become a national hero rather than a reviled child killer? Well, if morality was indeed a social construct then logically the answer should be yes, but this is unthinkable. Realistically we know that even if the whole world were filled with men like Brady who rebelled against established morality and even went as far as to make murder legal, murder would still be wrong. Our opinion, no matter how loudly voiced, does not change what we instinctively know to be true. Budziszewski says, “Everyone knows certain principles. There is no land where murder is virtue and gratitude vice.’[ix]

The apostle Paul claimed that whether people believe in God or not, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts will either accuse or excuse them …” (Romans 2: 15 - 16)

 I have often heard atheists insist that you can be moral without 
believing in God. Ironically this argument, although true,
unwittingly makes a stronger argument for the existence of a 
creator God. Human beings are made in God’s image, which means belief in God is not a pre-requisite for morality. Many atheists are able to achieve moral excellence without believing in God simply because the natural moral law is embedded, by default, by God, into their very being.  Humans are, however, free to violate the natural moral law and they frequently do, but as both Raskolnikov and his admirer Ian Brady discovered, this doesn’t mean the moral law doesn’t exist, nor does it make it go away or silence our conscience.

[i] Dostoyevsky, F (1998) Crime and Punishment, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Porter, S.L . (2009). Dostoevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution. In: Copan, P. and Craig, W. L Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors. Nashville: B & H Academic. 233 - 248.

[iii] Steel, F. (2013). Murder on the Moors: The Ian Brady and Myra Hindley Story. Available: Last accessed 13th July 2013.

[iv] Wikia. (2013). Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Available: Last accessed 8th July 2013.

[v] Steel, F. (2013). Murder on the Moors: The Ian Brady and Myra Hindley Story. Available: Last accessed 25th July 2013.
[vi] Unknown. (2013). Ian Brady: The real natural born killers. Available: Last accessed 25th July 2013.

[vii]  Is Morality Natural? J. Budziszewski at the University of Idaho, video, Veritas Forum, 17 October 2012, viewed 3rd July 2013,

[viii] Tran, M. (2000). Brady loses bid to die. Available: Last accessed 25th July 2013.

[ix] Budziszewski, J. (1997) Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, Grove, Ill, Inter Varsity Press. pp 208 - 209

image of Ian Brady as featured on the front cover of  Face To Face With Evil: Conversations With Ian Brady by Dr Chris Cowley (John Blake Publishing).