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The Frivolity of Evil

Theodore Dalrymple

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When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping. You cannot pay a debt by having caused even greater expense, nor can you pay in advance for a bank robbery by offering to serve a prison sentence before you commit it. Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, the slate is wiped clean once a prisoner is released from prison, but the debt is not paid off.

It would be just as absurd for me to say, on my imminent retirement after 14 years of my hospital and prison work, that I have paid my debt to society. I had the choice to do something more pleasing if I had wished, and I was paid, if not munificently, at least adequately. I chose the disagreeable neighborhood in which I practiced because, medically speaking, the poor are more interesting, at least to me, than the rich: their pathology is more florid, their need for attention greater. Their dilemmas, if cruder, seem to me more compelling, nearer to the fundamentals of human existence. No doubt I also felt my services would be more valuable there: in other words, that I had some kind of duty to perform. Perhaps for that reason, like the prisoner on his release, I feel I have paid my debt to society. Certainly, the work has taken a toll on me, and it is time to do something else. Someone else can do battle with the metastasizing social pathology of Great Britain, while I lead a life aesthetically more pleasing to me.

My work has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil. Why do people commit evil? What conditions allow it to flourish? How is it best prevented and, when necessary, suppressed? Each time I listen to a patient recounting the cruelty to which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have listened to several such patients every day for 14 years), these questions revolve endlessly in my mind.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website.

Posted: 11/23/04



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