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Meet the Materialists, part 5: Clarence Darrow

Note: This is one of a series of posts adapted from my new book, Darwin Day in America. You can find other posts in the series here.

Perhaps the most celebrated defense attorney in the first half of the twentieth century, Clarence Darrow is best known for his role at the Scopes “monkey trial” in the 1920s. But he also was an early champion of the idea that criminals should not be held responsible for their crimes. Darrow’s debunking of criminal responsibility was based squarely on his worldview of deterministic materialism.

Darrow once told prisoners in a county jail that there was no difference whatever in the moral condition between themselves and those still in society. “I do not believe people are in jail because they deserve to be,” he declared. “They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it, on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control, and for which they are in no way responsible.” According to Darrow, “there ought to be no jails, and if it were not for the fact that the people on the outside are so grasping and heartless in their dealing with the people on the inside, there would be no such institutions as jails.” He added that he knew why “every one” of the prisoners committed their crimes, even if they did not know the reason themselves: “You did these things because you were bound to do them.” Those prisoners who thought they made a choice to commit a crime were simply deluded. “It looked to you at the time as if you had a chance to do them or not, as you saw fit; but still, after all, you had no choice.”

Darrow even suggested that police were the real criminals, and he concluded by claiming that pleasure was the ultimate basis for morality: “I believe that progress is purely a question of the pleasurable units that we get out of life. The pleasure-pain theory is the only correct theory of morality, and the only way of judging life.”

Darrow’s outspoken denial of personal responsibility came to the forefront when he chose to defend Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb for their cold-blooded murder of a young boy in Chicago in the 1920s. The story of the Leopold-Loeb case and Darrow’s involvement in it can be found in chapter 3 of Darwin Day in America, “Criminal Science.”

To order Darwin Day in America click here. To find out more information about the book (and watch the trailer), visit the book’s website here.