AUDIO: “Concentric” from The Art of Minimalism by De Wolfe Music Library. Composer: Troy Banarzi

As the publisher of a national magazine I routinely receive letters from prisoners. Most of them just want free reading material because they are bored. Some are genuinely interested in the topics we cover and have ideas of their own that they want to share. A few feel overwhelmed by the intrusion of religion into prison life, particularly Christianity and Islam—to which their fellow inmates either feel a proselytizing zeal or to which they fake devotion in an attempt to convince parole-boards that by finding God they should be released early. A few have written me lengthy and detailed letters (handwritten in tiny print) about their crimes and to what extent they feel responsible for them. Two come to mind as especially salient for this exploration of free will and moral culpability.

In the late 1990s a man on death row for the rape and murder of a woman wrote to suggest to me that we publish an article in Skeptic against the death penalty. He thought that he should be spared execution because he had a sense that there was something seriously wrong with his brain. He told me that he was constantly flooded with thoughts of raping and killing women. So strong were these urges that even when he was being transported to jail after his death penalty sentencing, chained and locked down to his seat in a van with armed guards at the ready nearby, when they passed a woman walking on the sidewalk the only thing he could think about was what it would take for him to slip the chains and locks, overpower the armed guards, escape from the van, and get to that woman. Even though he was against the death penalty, he added that he should never be released from prison because there was no question in his mind that he would do it again. I don’t know if a brain scan was ever conducted on this man to identify any obvious neural pathologies, but from my reading of his account it seems certain that his capacity to control these obsessive, psychotic urges was so severely limited that he could not reasonably be compared to the average person, who has both sufficient self-restraint and an utter lack of such murderous impulses.

In 2012 a man sentenced for pedophilia wrote to try to convince me to edit a special issue of Skeptic about how pedophiles—who he claimed are born that way—are vilified and misunderstood. This man, now in his 30s, narrated a lengthy history of his childhood in which he was attracted to boys (not girls) his age, and that as he grew up the window of his sexual interests remained locked in at boys aged 8-10, almost as if there was a critical window for sexual attraction that was imprinted on his brain. As an adult he was still only attracted to boys in that age range, and had urges, he said, that he satisfied through certain Internet sites. He was vague about the extent to which he also fulfilled these needs through actual sexual encounters with young boys, but when he asked me to recall the most loving and intimate feelings I had ever experienced with a woman, and then compared these emotions to the most deeply sexual and loving feelings that he had experienced for young boys, told me all I needed to know. This man’s deeper point, however, was that there was nothing obviously wrong with him. He had no brain tumor or any other neural anomalies or pathologies that could be detected. He was raised by two loving parents in a white middle-class suburban home, and he attended safe and functional schools. He simply could not understand why these feelings that came so naturally to him should be condemned as abnormal and unnatural—indeed, criminal—by society.