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Riggall, R.M. (1926). Clinical: Cyril Burt. The Definition and Diagnosis of Moral Imbecility. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 1926, Vol. VI, p. 10.. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 7:253-254.

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Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: Clinical: Cyril Burt. The Definition and Diagnosis of Moral Imbecility. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 1926, Vol. VI, p. 10.

(1926). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 7:253-254

Clinical: Cyril Burt. The Definition and Diagnosis of Moral Imbecility. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 1926, Vol. VI, p. 10.

Robert M. Riggall

In dealing with the theoretical conceptions of the moral imbecile, Burt discusses earlier psychological hypotheses and shows that the idea of a specific moral faculty sprang from the intuitionists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moral sense was depicted as a kind of inherited conscience. Morality can rest upon no simple innate intuition, but must be learnt afresh by each individual. The modern view is that 'conscience' is the name given to a complicated aggregate of certain apperceptive systems. Moral character rests on certain inborn dispositions, but never was itself inborn. Discussing various views regarding alleged innate deficiency of moral inhibition, Burt points out that inhibition is now regarded not as a positive function of some particular centre, but as a secondary and negative effect of any and all nervous activity. Commenting on the bearing which the herd instinct has on moral sense, it is shown that here we find a considerable risk of over-simplification. Rees Thomas has recognized this danger and points out that the moral outcome of the herd instinct will largely depend upon the morality of the herd among which the individual happens to be cast. The moral imbecile cannot simply be


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defined as a person deficient in the social instinct; because other instincts, such as submission, fear and affection, are in early life more active than the gregarious tendencies. The axiom that whatever mental capacity is to be the subject of innate deficiency must itself be innate excludes Tredgold's 'moral sentiment', for moral sentiments are not inborn. Few persons develop a single sense for morality as such. Tredgold's account of the nature and development of moral sentiments is accepted (emotions associated with the idea of some moral person or principle). But Tredgold, having clearly pointed out how these sentiments are acquired, suddenly talks of 'an innate defect of the moral sentiment'. If the moral sentiment is acquired by experience, how can its defects be innate? It is simply an unproved and unserviceable assumption. Tredgold hesitates to diagnose moral imbecility until late adolescence. Rees Thomas has shown that nothing but prolonged analysis could ever prove that moral sentiments had been defective from birth or from an early age. Also analysis has always shown the condition to be due to some post-natal cause.

Burt divides mental deficiency into temperamental and intellectual types. It is extremely rare for a person of high intellect to be a temperamental defective. He sums up his objections to the clause defining the moral imbecile in the Act of 1913 as follows: The persons designated by the term are not imbeciles but belong to a higher grade known as 'feeble-minded'. Morality is not an innate faculty but is an acquired quality. Moral and immoral actions are influenced by innate conditions which are not themselves moral qualities, the commonest innate defect being defect of intelligence. Other innate conditions affecting moral conduct are temperamental rather than moral and this suggests the term 'temperamental deficiency' as a substitute for 'moral imbecility'. This term is recognized as psychological rather than legal, and it does not imply that the temperamental defective will always evince incorrigible habits of vice and crime. The differential diagnosis of temperamental deficiency depends on four points. The condition is emotional rather than intellectual. It is innate and therefore permanent, and so excludes adolescent instability, psychoneuroses, psychoses, criminal and vicious habits. The condition is concerned with general instinctive or emotional excess rather than with the over-development of any specific propensity. The excessive emotionality must be so extreme that the person needs protecting for his own sake as well as for that of others. Roughly, it includes those whose emotional control is less than 50 per cent., e.g. a child of ten behaving like a child of five (if his arrested development is not due to repressed complexes). However it is interpreted or defined by modern authorities it seems to be generally agreed that cases falling under this heading are exceptional and much less common than those defective in intelligence. The clause defining moral imbecility has become almost a dead letter.


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Article Citation

Riggall, R.M. (1926). Clinical. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 7:253-254

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WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of the subscriber to PEP Web and is copyright to the Journal in which it originally appeared. It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever.