It is over thirty years since the execution in 1989 of Theodore ‘Ted’ Robert Bundy. He is still considered the most notorious serial killer in history. He ultimately confessed to the homicide of thirty people in a four year killing spree between 1974 and 1978. Yet, when he was born on 24th November 1946 nobody could have predicted the devastating course his life would take.
Pope Francis was born in Argentina on 17th December 1936, almost exactly ten years before Bundy. The trajectory of his path to the top job in the Roman Catholic Church was equally unpredictable at birth.
In this article I would like to take a reasonably shallow dive into the nature of human morality in the hope that it may go some small way towards explaining the absolute polarity between the lives of these two men – one an executed serial killer, the other – a living Pope. Morality is a whole subsection of philosophy in and of itself so I will probably return for a more comprehensive analysis at some stage in the near future. For now though, let’s just scratch the surface.
It is evident that the environment in which one grows up and the people with whom one associates (whether by design or default) are constituent factors in the development of every human life. We refer to this process as nurture.
The nature of a thing, on the other hand, comprises those features which are hardwired into it before its creation. The actual creation or instantiation of the thing brings its nature to life. Humans have a heart, lungs, a liver, kidneys etc. These bodily parts are common to all humans and are thus said to be part of the natural make-up of a human. In addition to our physical characteristics, we have innate cognitive and emotional functions related to the ‘normality’ and maturity of our minds. The whole of the human body is designed to mature in unison with time and the process of human maturation begins at conception when the first cell divides into two, then four and so on. Whether we are conscious beings before birth is still argued among the experts but recent research suggests that the true state of human consciousness begins some time in early childhood and not while a foetus is still wallowing in the relative luxury of its mother’s womb.
I was a computer scientist from 2002 until 2016, a time span which encompassed the design and development of Object-Oriented Programming (OOP). OOP views all things in a system as a collection of individual (but related) objects. Before these objects are instantiated in a system they must be defined. So, if a human object is going to play a part in a new computerised system, the programmer must define what a human is in advance. Typically the following questions would be asked:
1. What characteristics are common to all humans?
2. What actions are common to all humans?
These characteristics and actions would be included in the definition of a human object appropriate to the requirements of the computerised system and so will typically only be a small subset of all the human characteristics and actions we know. Let’s take an example.
A human being has an age characteristic. On the same date every year (our human object’s birthday), an action needs to be taken on the age, namely to increment it by one. How else would Facebook be able to wish you a Happy Birthday?! But, we don’t all share the same birthday! So, the programmer describes the generic human object as having a birth date but doesn’t define what date that is until an instance of the human is ‘instantiated’ in the system.
The creation of the human in the system is analagous to birth in the real world. Once the human is born we can define its date of birth but not before then. Effectively, what happened in the womb is precursory and of no relevance to the programmer as he defines human commonalities. Similarly, when you join Facebook, your date of birth is saved so the system can wish you a Happy Birthday each year – and place you in your relevant demographic for advertising purposes later on. Facebook doesn’t ‘know’ you and is not interested in who you actually are until the moment you join the network.
Moreover, the definition of a human object includes those features common to all humans but the characteristics and actions of each instantiated human in the system can change as time passes in the computerised system of our analogy. The definition of what it is to be a human before entering the system, however, doesn’t change.
Let me go all analogous on you for a minute or two! As I recall, Agent Smith in the original Matrix movie was replicated hundreds of times to fight against Neo. Neo was ultimately able to win because each subsequent ‘Smith’ was a clone and the combat abilities of each clone were exactly the same. After a few fights, Neo was able to decipher Smith’s abilities and emerge victorious against the remaining clones. Clearly, had the programmer given Smith different abilities each time a new ‘clone’ entered the system, Neo would have had his work cut out. It is these different characteristics and abilities which define each and every one of us as individuals in the real world and we become even more unique as our experiences fine-tune who we are.
Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’ posits that the pre-instantiation nature of a thing is the pure ‘form’ of that thing and its creation merely replicates the original form. The instantiation is only a reflection of the true object. The nature of the true form never changes. It is the characteristics of the reflected instance that change.
A kitchen table is predefined as having a number of legs and a surface – its form. When a carpenter makes a new table he knows what it should look like (based on the form of a table) but he may decide to use oak or plywood, give it 3 or 4 legs. Once he has completed the table it can be said to be a new instance of the table that has been instantiated into the world. In Plato’s Theory, the new kitchen table is only a reflection of the table’s true form. The first dent in the wood will alter the characteristics of the reflected version of the table but its a priori form is immutable.
A human being under Plato’s theory is a reflective instantiation (at birth) of the pre-defined human object (‘form’) in a system we call ‘planet earth’ and each new instantiation has its own variation of the reflected characteristics. There are currently (approximately) 7.594 billion reflections of the human form on earth – and counting.
So, back to these characteristics we are born with and, specifically, which of them might be most relevant in respect of the Bundy / Francis dichotomy with which I began?
“There is in every one of us, even those who seem most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild and lawless.”
This quote from Plato could be paraphrased today as:
“Under the right circumstances everyone is capable of murder!”
I am currently living in Malaga, on the South coast of Spain where, until a few years ago, the upper echelons of the Irish criminal fraternity (specifically members of the Kinahan clan and their cohorts) chose to make their home away from home. In the face of stiff competition from Russian drug barons and unwanted attention from Spanish, Irish and European police authorities, they have since evacuated to the relative anonymity of Dubai but, while they were still active in these parts, shootings (and killings) were not an uncommon occurrence.
Let’s face it, if you play the ‘games’ the Kinahans played – and allegedly still do as shareholders in the Russian drug distribution networks – you are eventually going to end up in ‘the line of fire’! Getting shot by a competitor (or even a disgruntled colleague) is par for the course in the illegal narcotics business and should never surprise anyone finding themself at the receiving end of a hail of bullets discharged in anger.
Contrast the lives of the drug traffickers with that of Pope Francis. While previous Popes were indeed targeted, they did not make the same career decisions as the criminals to put themselves in the sights of the gunman.
In 1980, Pope Francis (or Jorge as he was known back then) spent a few months at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, a Jesuit college next door to my own Jesuit alma mater in Dublin. In fact, it was the same year I started prep school there with 29 other eight-year-olds, complete strangers from all over Dublin – most of whom would become lifelong friends. The inimitable Ms. Maire O’Kelly was in loco parentis!
Even then, nobody had any notion of the Argentinian priest’s destiny. If you imagine him on a sunny summer evening strolling around the gardens of the Milltown Institute reading his ‘office’, it is easy to draw the stark contrast between his life and, say, one of the Kinahans. The former perhaps intent on accumulating a greater knowledge and understanding of the nature of the world and its people, the other intent on accumulating as much monetary wealth as possible in whatever fashion is required.
Evidently, the environment and people with which we surround ourselves significantly influences whether we will ultimately face the circumstances under which we are all capable of committing murder. The possibility of these circumstances occurring is vastly reduced in the case of Pope Francis and conversely, increased when one continually chooses the life of an international drug baron.
But what if, some random evening, a terrorist (with insider information that a future Pope is present) enters the grounds of the Milltown Institute and threatens the life of Francis who, not yet being Pope at the time of our shockingly hypothetical incident, is unlikely to be surrounded by his infamous Swiss Guard security detail? Let’s assume the terrorist wields a gun and states in no uncertain terms that he is about to pull the trigger. What do you think Francis would do? I suspect not even God knows the answer to that conundrum but it is highly likely, in my own humble opinion, that the future Pope (having altogether different but equally destructive weapons to hand) would attempt to use his knowledge of human nature, his intelligence and a few insightful hypotheses to convince the terrorist to cease and desist from his evil ways. But, let’s suppose, dragging the hypothetical into the realms of the unimaginable, that Francis carries a gun. Would he use it if he was certain the terrorist’s intentions were genuine? I suspect not but, for now, let’s just hope this crazy hypothetical is never put to the test! Perhaps the future Pope wouldn’t choose to shoot first and ask questions later but it is altogether conceivable that the rest of us wouldn’t think twice given the opportunity to defend ourselves against certain death.
Thankfully, most of us are never likely to encounter the scenario where we have to make such a pivotal choice – to shoot another human being in defence of our own life. We have chosen to live according to the laws of the land and are surrounded by like-minded friends and family – not criminals, terrorists or serial killers. But what if the life threatened was that of your son, daughter, sister, brother or even your parents? Would you shoot then? Of course you would! Despite often not being able to understand the rationale of those who kill, there are circumstances where we would, almost instinctively and without hesitation, pull the trigger – knowing it would end the life of another human being and save the life of a loved one. Given this, perhaps it is not inconcievable that Francis would also pull the trigger – should the life threatened not be his own. If the future Pope would do it, there is ‘hope’ for the rest of us!
It appears that the majority of us have an entirely different moral code when compared to the likes of Christy or Daniel Kinahan or Ted Bundy. How does this come to be? Well, if we are all agreed that the capacity for the worst kind of animalistic behaviour exists within all of us, then we can move on! Yes?
So, if we are capable of the worst posible behaviour, we must surely be capable of all other behaviours – from truly altruistic acts of goodness and kindness at the summit of the behavioural hierarchy all the way down to murder at the base. It appears, for the majority of us, that these base behaviours are absent in our lives purely because the circumstances do not present themselves whereupon we ‘lower’ our behavioural standards.
The argument that we are simply not the same kind of people as those locked up in maximum security prisons (with life sentences for the most heinous crimes imaginable) is without foundation. We are the very same as them but – through default or design or a combination of the two – we have somehow managed to avoid that particular set of circumstances which reveal the worst of our human traits. Circumstances, indeed, where we become incapable of inhibiting the most base animal behaviours and show our ‘true colours’. But, surely there is more to it than just circumstance? Of course there is!
There is a socio-economic influence at play too. The majority of prisoners behind bars around the world come from the poorest backgrounds. While it is true that wealthy people can afford to pay extortionate bail bonds and hire better lawyers to keep them out of prison altogether, the fact remains that the vast majority of criminal behaviour is exhibited by those who have been financially impoverished growing up.
Whether it is seeing others enjoy the trappings of wealth or a pure desire to lift themselves out of poverty, it is indisputable that the less well-off will often stoop to unimaginably low levels in pursuit of money. That having been said, I would suggest bad behaviour by this particular societal cohort has less to do with a paucity of financial means and more to do with a detrimental lack of discipline and suitable role models in the formative years – role models who would punish inappropriate behaviour, reward the good and, through their own actions, demonstrate the behaviour they expect.
The justice system is an extension of the role model system, albeit capable of rendering significantly more severe penalties for miscreant behaviour. But then again, our perpetrators have typically reached the age of responsibility if or when they encounter the courts. At this stage, the role model system appears to have already failed and society (via the justice system) must step up to the plate in its stead.
Undoubtedly, there are numerous examples of poor people rising from poverty without breaking the law or turning to more mischievous means but, unfortunately, they appear to be in the minority. I would posit that it is primarily the continuity of the punishment / reward cycle by responsible role models that instills, in the formative years, the ability to consciously inhibit our worst behaviours and allow the best ones to flourish.
Good role models are critical to positive development. Familial role models are best. That being said, many a young man has been guided by people other than family and turned out well. It is the young men that have no guidance that typically stray into a cycle of behaviour considered by society at large to be at least inappropriate if not downright illegal.
Moral fortitude is learned. It is not, as we say in Ireland, licked from a stone. It is said everywhere, not just in Ireland, that the apple never falls far from the tree. Young men (and women) benefit most when their role models are morally well-rooted and teache sound ethics by example – and otherwise. The apple tree will, more often than not, bear delicious fruit when the roots are strong and the weather is conducive to good growth.
But, I hear you say, Ted Bundy’s parents loved and raised him well. They did indeed. So there must be even more going on than we have discussed so far.
The sharpest nail in the abnormal behaviour coffin is a psychological divergence from that which is considered the normal operation of the mind. Regardless of whether the criminal was born into poverty or not, and raised by morally-upstanding role models or not, it appears even the soundest of minds can go awry, whether as a result of a morbid curiosity with sexual deviance, lack of empathy or some other complex, yet disfunctional, brain activity.
A cursory glance at the crimes committed by Bundy will lead most to conclude that he was indeed a psychopath, despite the presence of loving parents, family and friends in his life as he matured to adulthood. The known particulars of Bundy’s psychopathy are essentially superfluous for the purposes of this discussion – suffice to say, despite demonstrating a high level of intelligence, his criminal actions can ultimately be ascribed to some chaotic and catastrophic sequence of synaptic impulse firings the rest of us never experience or at least never acknowledge as being viable.
In as much as most of us typically ignore, for example, suicidal ideations as being just that, it appears that the mind of a psychopath extensively analyses similarly disturbing brain activity and by the very analysis, attributes to it some level of importance. Whether this attribution leads to further action clearly depends on the makeup of the mind in question and the circumstances of the individual.
So, there we have it! Despite all the apparent advantages available to a new born child, it is still possible for even the most loved and best-guided child to ultimately stray from the narrow path designed by the laws, customs and conventions governing good society.
Under certain circumstances, we all have the capacity to behave (wilfully or otherwise) in a manner above and beyond that which is considered socially acceptable.
Should any of us be confronted with those circumstances in the future, it should be the express wish of each and everyone that we have sufficiently absorbed the requisite emotional skills to ensure we are consciously (or otherwise) able to inhibit the threat from the beast within and act in a manner befitting our position as the most evolved of all the animals on earth. Civil society depends on it.