The BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4 is the nation’s flagship news and current affairs broadcast. On Saturday 15 August one section of the programme examined the fallout from the ‘Baby P’ case – three adults including the mother were convicted over the death of a two-year-old boy. The lifting of anonymity protection for Baby P’s mother and her lover led to a flood of detail about their lives in this week’s papers. Criminal psychologist Professor David Canter and moral philosopher Baroness Warnock discussed how the media have been portraying the couple, and whether the language used has been appropriate.
Professor Canter mused about whether the protagonists had some kind of ‘personality disorder’. Baroness Warnock objected to this idea. ‘That (idea) has always completley puzzled me, since psychiatrists on the whole seem to regard this as beyond changing. They don’t talk about curing it, they simply say ‘he’s got a personality disorder’. I don’t understand the causal implications of that. What I’d like to know is whether Professor Canter thinks that people can be changed… Could these people have overcome their tendancies to sadism and bullying and tormenting babies?”
Canter replied: “We must remember that this is not one individual acting impulsively… it’s a group of individuals developing over time and creating their own little world where these sorts of action are acceptable… when they are separated and given time to understand the consequences of their actions, it’s just possible that they may over time be able to live other lives. I would like to say that I completely agree with Baroness Warnock about the whole notion of personality disorder… these are attempts by the medical fraternity to grab ownership of a problem which is actually a social problem that emerges within individuals and between individuals in the context of the way society deals with them and what they are allowed to get away with, so it’s that whole process we have to recognise, not just thinking of particular individuals that in some way have some mechanisms within them that are disturbed and bent.”
Interviewer Ed Stourton asked Canter if the idea of a personality disorder was something that was used to absolve people of personal responsibility in such circumstances. Canter replied “…The whole of the social sciences and medical professions drift into implying that they are absolving people by attempts to explain the causes of these horrific actions as something outside of the choices these individuals make. They talk about the genetics or their upbringing or their hormonal system or a brain disorder or whatever – all of these imply that somehow or other these individual doesn’t make a choice, and what the law is very clear about is that individuals have responsibilities for their own actions, and furthermore plenty of individuals with these potential disturbances don’t go on to carry out horrific crimes. I think there is a risk of condoning this through some kind of diagnostic process – but I don’t think that’s the intention, I think the intention is to understand.”
Baroness Warnock pointed out that the concept of temptation, and avoiding giving in to it, was a key concept in parenting – children (and adults) can control what they do.
I was very interested to hear these kind of ideas being raised on the air – my recent paper with Kirsten Dierolf on the Grammar of Neuroscience seeks to make much the same argument. The BBC interview is available till Saturday next at http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8203000/8203011.stm (look at 08.32), and the Grammer of Neuroscience paper is free at the InterAction website – http://www.asfct.org/documents/journal/2009-05/the_grammar_of_neuroscience.pdf.