By reason of its complexity the moral sense is one of the most delicate and most vulnerable functions of the mind. Thus we find it altered in most of the psychoses, especially those accompanied by mental deterioration.
There is, however, a condition, which has been variously termed moral insanity, moral imbecility, and inborn criminalism, and in which defect of moral sense exists more or less independently of feeble-mindedness, psychotic disease, or mental deterioration.
This condition finds early expression in perversities of character and conduct. The child is naughty, cruel, deceitful, irritable, violent; or he is, on the contrary, taciturn and dissembling.
Education totally fails to modify such natures. The moral sense is not built upon notions acquired through intellectual culture. It is the result of a special sensibility, of a function which the psychic organ lacks in these cases. "When this apparatus is absent, the most favorable surroundings fail to exercise their influence." 1
As the child becomes a man, as he comes into more direct contact with society, his infirmity becomes more manifest. The dominant feature is seen to be profound egoism combined with complete indifference with regard to right and wrong.
The exclusive aim of such an individual is his pleasure or his own interest (and very often he has but poor judgment as regards even his own interest), and to reach this aim he does not hesitate to use any means or any expedient. He has neither sentiment of honor nor respect for the truth. His unique preoccupation is to escape conviction and punishment.
Cruel and malicious toward his inferiors and toward the weak in general, he is cowardly toward anybody who is above him. In the asylum or prison he quite readily submits to the rules and to the discipline and does not abandon himself to his morbid propensities until he regains his liberty.
Undoubtedly there are cases of moral defectiveness with a sane judgment and a strong will. These, freed from the scruples which might interfere with their liberty of action, occasionally have a brilliant career.
1 E. Bleuler. Der geborene Verbrecher. 1896. - B. Glueck. A Study of 608 Admissions to Sing Sing Prison. Mental Hygiene, Jan., 1918.
Almost always, however, other psychic anomalies are present in addition to the disorders of the moral sphere. The most frequent are:
(a) Weakness of judgment: the subject realizes but imperfectly the possible consequences of his acts, and in spite of all his precautions he ultimately comes into conflict with the law. The thoughtlessness of criminals is well known.
(b) Absence of perseverance: this prevents the utilization of any aptitudes which the patient may possess and which are in some instances very considerable.
(c) Impulsiveness: moral defectives readily yield to the first impulse, so that it is difficult in practice to distinguish them from the impulsive criminals. The best criterion is the existence of subsequent remorse in the latter. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine its true degree of sincerity. It is well known with what consummate art hardened criminals simulate the most touching remorse.
(d) Diverse other psychic anomalies: obsessions, morbid emotionalism, etc.