Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/September 1872/On Moral Contagion

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IN his short pamphlet of twenty-four pages, the writer treats of a matter observed by all who read the newspapers—we mean the fact that crimes, particularly those of a graver description, generally occur in epidemics. To prove this point, Dr. Despine, in the first division of his paper, records a large number of murders, suicides, robberies, etc.; on these it is not necessary to dwell, but we shall pass on to his second division—the law which regulates Moral Contagion. The following is what is said on this matter:

Moral contagion, being a natural phenomenon, is consequently one of the laws to which God has subjected all created things. We succeed in the discovery of this law by analyzing moral facts and by studying the circumstances in which they occur, in the same manner as we succeed in discovering the laws which preside over the phenomena of the physical and organic worlds, by studying perseveringly the facts appertaining thereto as well as the conditions in which they are produced. Now, the conclusion to be drawn from the facts which we have related is forcibly this, which will represent the law that has directed the commission of these acts: Every manifestation of the instincts of the mind, of the sentiments and passions of every kind, excites similar sentiments and passions in individuals who are capable of feeling them in a certain intensity. This law explains how a certain act infects some and not others. One could not better compare man's moral nature than to a sounding-board (table d'harmonie). The sounding of one note causes vibrations in the same note in all the boards which, being susceptible of emitting it, are influenced by the sound emitted. In the same way, the manifestation of a sentiment, of a passion, excites the same instinctive element in every individual susceptible, by his moral constitution, of feeling more or less acutely this same instinctive element.

If this law acts beneficially in affording us the means of putting into activity, of exciting and strengthening by good example, the higher sentiments of man, it also becomes a source of evil in causing moral perversion by the influence of bad example, by the recounting of criminally immoral acts, which vivify, incite, strengthen the evil instincts, sentiments, passions, of the man whose natural morale is already below par. It is necessary, therefore, to take this law into serious consideration in order that it may operate as much as possible for good, and remove as far as possible those circumstances which tend to make it the source of evil. And these latter circumstances occur too frequently in our day, by the relation of hideous crimes with which all the newspapers are filled, and particularly those which, by their low price, are intended to be read by the lower classes. If the recital of immoral, criminal acts is not dangerous for individuals of good parts, who from their mental constitution reprobate these acts with horror, who have only an aversion to what is bad, it is incontestable that, for those morally deformed, in whom the tendencies to evil are very powerful, easily excited, or already developed, either by their inherent activity, or by the corrupting influence of immoral surroundings, and in whom the moral sentiments which are antagonistic to the depraved tendencies are feeble or absent—it is incontestable, I say, and I have brought forward numerous facts in evidence thereof, that the publication of criminal acts is very dangerous to public morality and security, because it stimulates in these individuals the same depraved tendencies which had occasioned these crimes, and awakens those sentiments, those penchants, those passions; and the desire to commit similar acts then appears. Now, in such morally-deformed individuals, who form the unfortunate dregs of society, a class which is constantly renewed, and of which the source is never exhausted, the recital of such acts becomes to them a cause of crime, and consequently a cause of danger to society. These individuals, abnormally constructed in the moral part of their nature, real moral idiots, though perhaps very intelligent, physically well developed, and in good bodily condition; these individuals whom the public describe as heartless, whom magistrates, before whom they appear on various charges, accuse of being destitute of human feelings; these individuals in whom criminal tendencies are not commanded by the sentiment of moral duty, by moral perception, by religious feelings, and by other noble instincts of humanity; these individuals who consider their immoral and hideous desires without abhorrence, and whom crime leaves unmoved and without remorse, who, in way of regret, feel only what injures the success of their undertakings at being captured and punished—these individuals, I say, will be tempted to commit crime if an evil desire excited by example becomes more powerful than their other better feelings which, while they predominated, restrained any criminal tendencies which these persons might have experienced. This miserable scum of humanity so dangerous to society, which produces exclusively all the greatest criminals, and to which we have directed too little attention up to the present time, ought to be explored to the bottom.—Journal of Mental Science.