In Dante’s “Inferno,” the great Roman poet Virgil guides the protagonist through the nine circles of hell. As Virgil leads the way past great-tailed, scabrous monsters and disfigured sinners, through torrential rain and fire and, ultimately, up to the incarnate of Satan himself, he elucidates the grand moral architecture of God’s torture chamber. There is a strict logic informing the arrangement of the damned. Perpetrators of similar sins are grouped and tortured together at different levels, which are subsumed within a moral hierarchy spanning from inoffensive pagans who reside in castles and recline on rolling pastures to traitors like Judas, who reside between Satan’s perpetually gnashing teeth. One of the driving forces in the epic poem is the concept of contrapasso: that each man be punished in a way that correlates directly to the quality and magnitude of his sin.
Dante penned “The Divine Comedy” after being expelled from his homeland of Florence, following his favored party’s fall from power. From his depictions of elaborate forms of torture for his real-life political enemies, such as Pope Boniface VIII, it isn’t hard to surmise the author’s psychology. Humans have a profound longing for justice: When we perceive its presence, it confirms our notions of a structured, moral world; when we note its absence, it suggests dark questions about the indifference of the universe and the arbitrary nature of the society that we construct within it.
In our modern society, as in Dante’s epic poem, we subscribe to a hierarchy of sins, one that exists formally in our legal code and informally in public reactions to different breeds of crime. In America, a thug who murders a member of a rival gang, for instance, elicits a significantly less horrified response than a man who stews his neighbor for dinner. Our society seems to almost unanimously consider one particular transgression to be the ultimate immoral act: the sexual molestation of minors. And, while the prevailing hierarchies of immoral behaviors have changed significantly since Dante’s time, our primordial thirst for the blood of those that we deem to be at the bottom has not.
In an ABC News article titled “Prison is Living Hell’ for Pedophiles,” Michael James describes a scenario that strikes me as a real-world approximation of Dante’s epic poem. He writes, “Though prison officials in some Northeastern states question the idea of an automatic social hierarchy among prisoners based solely upon their offenses, most agree that if there is one, child molesters and informants … occupy the lowest rungs.” In jail, which is literally hell on earth in the sense that people go there to atone for their sins, pedophiles perhaps undergo the worst torture. As one prisoners’ rights activist is quoted saying in the same piece, “[Child sex offenders] are at risk of being murdered, having their food taken, having their cells defecated and urinated in.”
Life on the outside is not necessarily brighter for those convicted of pedophilic crimes. With their criminal statuses made public and easily searchable online, they often find themselves the perennial objects of horrified stares and clenched whispers; complete ostracism from their communities and deep humiliation in the face of their fellow citizens; and sometimes even vigilante justice or mob violence. Furthermore, they face severe legal restrictions on where they can live, meaning that forced homelessness is sometimes inadvertently tacked on to the end of their jail sentences.
Through one lens, these hardships may appear to be the just consequence of a pedophile’s actions contrapasso, if you will. However, when the issue is viewed more scientifically, it becomes clear that the current situation is unjustified.
In an eye-opening article for Slate titled “How Can We Stop Pedophiles?” Jennifer Bleyer writes about the increasing consensus that an inveterate attraction to minors is much more likely to be a genetic disposition, and in this way akin to one’s sexual orientation, than it is to be any manner of choice. James Cantor, a senior scientist at the Sexual Behaviors Clinic of the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is at the forefront of neuroimaging studies of pedophiles and has described a kind of crossed wiring in their brains that “they’re likely born with.” Bleyer also writes acutely about the implications of such an understanding, making the case that perhaps the most effective way of curtailing the sexual abuse of minors is to de-stigmatize the naturally occurring, involuntary condition of pedophilia which, she is careful to note, is “the attraction to children, not the act of molesting them.” This, in turn, would encourage potential offenders to seek help in controlling their urges before they act, something that happens all too rarely today given society’s misapprehensions about their condition.
As scientists uncover more and more about how overt predilections and actions emerge from innate, neurochemical quirks, they reveal a picture that looks increasingly out of sync with our inherited ideas of a moral hierarchy. Integral to Dante’s “Inferno” is the concept that sinners choose to stray from the righteous path and, consequently, elect their particular destinies of eternal damnation. Yet modern advances in neuroscience suggest that we don’t choose our predilections and that they’re hardwired into us. This understanding requires a rethinking of the way that we treat aberrant psychologies. A shift is in order away from moralistic retribution and toward prevention based on a fundamental acceptance that these are not choices. We should care for these people who are born into the agonizing circumstance of having their desire and conscience fundamentally opposed and take care not to inflict harm on innocent minors. It’s correct to punish them for their actions, yes, but not for their spontaneous thoughts or desires, which, in a truly moral world, warrant help, not ostracism.