Agatha Christie on determinism and criminal justice

August 19, 2017 • 2:30 pm
Reader John found a passage in a nearly 90 year old Agatha Christie novel that presages the views of Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, and many other determinists on the application of determinism to our justice system. This is what John sent:
I  just read an Agatha Christie novel called “The Murder at the Vicarage” (published in 1930), and I found the following passage very interesting. Given your thoughts on determinism and capital punishment, I thought you’d enjoy reading it as well.
It is a conversation between a doctor (Haydock) and a vicar (Clement). The doctor is speaking first. The first-person narrator is the vicar.
The text follows; note that the doctor doesn’t say that people shouldn’t be punished, but that they should be sequestered to keep them out of society (he doesn’t mention rehabilitation or deterrence—other valid reasons for putting someone away). Emphases are mine.

“We think with horror now of the days when we burnt witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.” [Doctor]

“You don’t believe in capital punishment?” [Vicar]

“It’s not so much that.” He paused. “You know,” he said slowly, “I’d rather have my job than yours.”


“Because your job deals very largely with what we call right and wrong—and I’m not at all sure that there’s any such thing. Suppose it’s all a question of glandular secretion. Too much of one gland, too little of another—and you get your murderer, your thief, your habitual criminal. Clement, I believe the time will come when we’ll be horrified to think of the long centuries in which we’ve punished people for disease—which they can’t help, poor devils. You don’t hang a man for having tuberculosis.”

“He isn’t dangerous to the community.”

“In a sense he is. He infects other people. Or take a man who fancies he’s the Emperor of China. You don’t say how wicked of him. I take your point about the community. The community must be protected. Shut up these people where they can’t do any harm—even put them peacefully out of the way—yes, I’d go as far as that. But don’t call it punishment. Don’t bring shame on them and their innocent families.”

I looked at him curiously. “I’ve never heard you speak like this before.”

“I don’t usually air my theories abroad. Today I’m riding my hobby. You’re an intelligent man, Clement, which is more than some parsons are. You won’t admit, I dare say, that there’s no such thing as what is technically termed, ‘Sin,’ but you’re broadminded enough to consider the possibility of such a thing.”

It strikes at the root of all accepted ideas,” I said.

“Yes, we’re a narrow-minded, self-righteous lot, only too keen to judge matters we know nothing about. I honestly believe crime is a case for the doctor, not the policeman and not the parson. In the future, perhaps, there won’t be any such thing.”

“You’ll have cured it?”

“We’ll have cured it. Rather a wonderful thought…”


As Jake said at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

This passage is remarkably prescient. Thanks to John for transcribing it!

33 thoughts on “Agatha Christie on determinism and criminal justice

  1. We’d lock up hurricanes if we could but not for punishment. One chooses criminal behaviour like one choses cancer.

    1. I respectfully disagree. A few years back a neighbor of mine went to prison for running a Ponzi scheme. It didn’t start out that way; originally it was a mortgage-backed investment fund. But when the mortgage market crashed and the fund went into the red, he made a conscious decision to keep taking new investments and run a shell game with them to make the fund look profitable on paper. If the word “choice” means anything at all, he chose to become a criminal in a way that nobody would choose to become a cancer victim.

      1. Certainly he saw the shell game as a risk/opportunity game, hoping to get the statistically possible win? Akin to when smokers, drinkers and processed meat eaters up their cancer risks. [Disclaimer: not a smoker, but suppress voluntarily cancerogenes to once a week.]

        That said, seems 2/3 of cancers are just random outcomes.

        1. One reason he cited was that he hated the idea of giving money back.

          But whatever the antecedent causes, the point is that his cognitive faculties and moral judgment were engaged in that decision in a way that they aren’t (usually) when getting a disease. Surely that’s a salient difference when it comes time to decide what to do with him.

          1. Certainly you don’t try to rehabilitate a cancer victim. On the other hand we have to assume neither are really responsible for the events that changed their lives.

          2. Depends on what you mean by “responsible”. If it means something like “deficient in moral judgment in a way subject to correction by social sanctions”, then in that sense he’s responsible for the crime but not the disease.

          3. One reason he cited was that he hated the idea of giving money back.

            You said that the fund had gone into the red? Which means there wasn’t enough money to reimburse the investors, even neglecting the costs of winding up the company into bankruptcy and liquidating any assets to pay off creditors (investors).
            There is a reason that the second people in line for a payout in a bankruptcy is the government (for taxes, pensions, etc). The first people in line are the “administration officers” who count up the assets, and deal with paying off the creditors. Otherwise, no on owuld take on the work. Then government. Then secured creditors (e.g. loan company with the mortgace on the building). Then unsecured creditors – which typically includes workers with unpaid wages, and most other investors.

          4. As I understand it, he was taking in new money faster than he could find mortgages to buy. Rather than return the excess cash to investors, he opted to spend it on himself, which put the fund technically underwater (more obligations than assets). Details are readily available by googling “Meridian Mortgage”.

  2. Isn’t the logical extension then that we have no choice but to punish criminals because of our own pre-determined natures? Who will protect us from ourselves?

  3. Dame Agatha was something of an anti-Semite, if memory serves. I recall reading somewhere in Hitch’s oeuvre (in Hitch-22, probably) about a dinner he attended at the old gal’s digs (while still a young journo himself, well before he discovered his own Jewish ancestry) and of some of the discordant table talk there.

    1. I mean that solely as a historical note, not an ad hom on Ms. Christie’s point here. In fact, I rather think her character’s correct.

    2. This scenario suggests something more frightening – what if Hitchens himself engaged in said discordant talk, only to learn years later he was denigrating his own mother and her offspring. I’m sure such things happen all the time.

      1. It would, but that’s not what happened. Here’s the passage, in inimitable Hitchens fashion (inasmuch as I finally found it in my copy of Hitch-22):

        “The anti-Jewish flavor of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked, or put down to heavy humor or generational prejudice. It was vividly unpleasant and it was bottom-numbingly boring.”

        1. bottom-numbingly boring

          There’s a great Hitchensism for you. It could be intensified by changing out the euphemism for it’s grittier synonym. I’ll do my best to remember it. 😎

    1. I agree. I’ve read “Murder at the Vicarage” twice and noted the passage under discussion but
      it seemed so obviously valid that I’d never thought to make anything special of it. Too busy trying to keep all the plot points and misdirections sorted out in my mind, but Aunt Agatha still fooled me at the end. Both times.

  4. rehabilitation or deterrence—other valid reasons for putting someone away

    I don’t see rehabilitation as a valid reason for putting someone away. It’s a valid reason for requiring that they get treatment, but if that can be accomplished without locking them up and without endangering others, surely that’s preferable.

  5. I’ve seen a lot of Swedish and Danish TV, and am always reminded of how primitive the US is when a prison cell is shown. They’re like motel rooms. They appear to have a reform/treatment approach instead of a revenge approach. I keep meaning to find something to read about Scandinavian corrections systems, but haven’t yet.

    1. US prison culture feeds into this problem as well. Prisons are reluctant to furnish inmates with anything that could be turned into an improvised weapon, i.e., anything at all. This leads to sterile and spartan conditions. Which increases resentment and willingness to lash out.

      Unfortunately there isn’t a simple fix for such a cycle.

  6. “Is it not possible, is it not probable, is it not true, that the actions of all men are determined by countless causes over which they have no positive control?” –Robert Green Ingersoll, 1833-1899. The above is from an essay, “Crimes Against Criminals”

  7. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t read Agatha.
    The butler didn’t do it.

    The following excerpt from Lord Of The Rings concerns Frodo and Gandalf talking about Gollum.

    Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.
    Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo?

    The interesting thing here is that Frodo’s comment is out of character as he is portrayed in the rest of the book. He always decries wanton destruction of life. I guess one might take Gandalf’s comment as a view Tolkein’s had on capital punishment.

  8. Interestingly, Agatha Christie’s novel was published only six years after the Leopold and Loeb trial in which Clarence Darrow made perhaps the first legal defense against the death penalty based on determinist ideas.

    Perhaps Christie was influenced by that trial (?).

  9. Hate to spoil one’s view of the good Dr. Haydock, but Agatha Christie gives him a change of heart near the close of the novel. When the doctor discovers that the murderer targeted a second victim, this time not an evil old man, but a poor sod with self-esteem issues who also has a mother and a sister to look out for, the doctor abandons determinism and hopes the murderer is punished for his dastardly crime.

  10. “Shut up these people where they can’t do any harm—even put them peacefully out of the way—yes, I’d go as far as that. But don’t call it punishment. Don’t bring shame on them and their innocent families.”

    I like the sentiment, but that is the typical “cosmological hypocrisy” of the Incompatibilists. Just as the wrong-doers could not do otherwise, so cannot do anybody else, hence the appeal (“don’t call it…”) is ridiculous.

    If course, the argument must still be made, as causality runs its course, but it’s still at the same time ridiculous, since whatever happens, happens no matter what (leaving no place not only for free will, but also everything else, from an outside view).

  11. The thought that medical reasons determine crime, particularly mediated by the function of glands, seems to have been popular at the time Agatha Christie wrote A Murder in the Vicarage(1939). Her contemporary, Dorothy Sayers, brings it upp in two of her early detective stories (Whose Body? and Unnatural Death), written about 1925, and her Gaudy Night from 1935 contains quite elaborate discussions about how to handle criminals – medically och by legal punishments. So obviously this was a topic of the time.

  12. The threat of punishment factors into the decision making of rational actors. To remove it (or its threat) is to remove part of the deliberative part of someone folks brain processes.
    Its quite easy to watch the effects of this:
    1) Watch children (whose frontal lobes havent grown yet)
    2) Watch adults whose frontal lobes dont work (they cant judge consequences) and see what happens
    3) Have people for whom consequences dont matter as a function of character/ social situation and watch what sort of American president they become
    The idea that doctors “will” cure it is an old one (It finds an early expression in the Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, but even Socrates advanced the idea that no-one willingly does evil). But this does not look like happeneing anytime soon, any more than any other such fantasies.

  13. But he was in favor of killing them, “peacefully out of the way” just as long as we’re not calling it punishment. I’m sure that makes all the difference to the dead person.

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