To gain some first-hand experience of prison life, George Orwell went out to the Mile End Road in London one Christmas with the aim of getting himself arrested for being drunk and incapable. A day or so later, when Orwell was waiting to go into court, the sergeant told him: ‘Lucky for you Mr Brown isn’t on the bench this morning. Teetotaller he is. He don’t half give it to the drunks.’
That was 1931, but in his various guises, Mr Brown has been giving it to the drunks for a very long time. It’s odd, of course, that people who drink should get it more than anybody else. But that’s Brown in a nutshell: drinkers are worse than other offenders, more culpable somehow. Drink taints crime with sin. It is the demon, the root cause of so many of society’s ills.
I don’t know much about this thesis, or about temperance movements, but it seems obvious why the presence of alcohol would transmute crime into sin. It is because the drinker chooses to drink. Eventually choices may lead to physiological and psychological habituation, and then basically a person has been given over to the depravity of addiction; but this is still the result of choices.
Whether one is self-medicating, numbing, socializing, self-punishing, blowing off steam, or cutting loose, it is by choice. The meaning of the choice is evasion, in every case. Sometimes the evasion is understandable, useful, and even possibly good; but it is nevertheless evasion. An evasion explicitly dodges personal responsibility. Yet, if a crime results, the proper response is not to say that the person is not responsible by reason of incapacity; rather, the proper response is to note that the person deliberately incapacitated themselves. That means that the person is either too malicious, too stupid, too immature, or too irresponsible to be considered a fully functioning, rational moral agent.
That is true for the particular situation, and for every situation where that person incapacitates themselves. One must always ask, “What is this person trying to avoid?” When they hide in the crowd, when they get drunk, when they get stoned, when they take prescription painkillers, or do anything else that incapacitates moral/ethical reasoning, reflex control, and rational consideration of consequences, they are avoiding something.
We can go further and generalize this psychological issue in terms of motivation. Avoidance doesn’t have to be demonized as always bad. People either act impulsively for something or against something. If they act impulsively for something they are avoiding thinking about threats. If they are not contemplating action, then they are avoiding action either for or against. There are too many impulses, stimuli, threats, distractions, feelings, and thoughts. So avoidance cannot be absolutely framed as non-action or as morally deficient.
But avoidance of responsibility is always the same. It is always assessed pragmatically, after the fact. That requires the person to anticipate consequences, either by being brilliantly predictive, by having well developed instincts, or by having learned right behavior. If they are incapable of doing that, or have deliberately incapacitated themselves, then they can’t be trusted to have moral judgment.
That doesn’t make a crime worse. It means that the person will probably commit the same crime over and over, not necessarily because they are addicted to anything, but because they cannot face the responsibility entailed by doing something non-criminal. If the “crime” is well accepted, or expected, in their community, then no one will care. Effectively, there is no crime in that case. Then that person goes to another community or gets drunk with different people, or police decide to start beating on some particular group, or lawyers start chasing victims, and suddenly a crime spree is discovered. That’s how alcohol or drugs get demonized, when really (a) the crimes were there all along, (b) the irresponsibility was there all along, and (c) the crowd is always wrong.