Questioning Moral Behavior: how should we interpret innate evil?

Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

Questioning Moral Behavior: how should we interpret innate evil? 

This paper stems from the Biology 202 class discussion which asked can self responsibility and neuroscience coexist.   

Child molestation is perceived as an extremely heinous act, committed only by the most evil. There is little sympathy found for the convicted pedophile, especially a pedophile assimilating back into society while on probation. Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder characterized by sexually arousing fantasies and behaviors directed toward pre-pubescent children.(5) The causes of pedophilia are not well understood. What is known about those who suffer from the disease is that they do not choose this disorder, but experience inescapable fantasies. Pedophiles may in fact hate their urges and behavior, but cannot stop on their own. Professionals argue that pedophilia is incurable but can be treated so that perpetrators learn the extent of harm done to victims, consciously work against their urges, and do not reoffend.(9) If sexual attraction to children is a disease, how can pedophiles be held personally accountable for behavior that is often impossible for them to prevent? Furthermore, how should society interpret these criminals? Does accepting pedophiles into mainstream society mean sacrificing existing moral guidelines? Given the available information on pedophilia, is it possible to shift society’s conception of pedophilia from one of extreme hatred to one of cautious acceptance? Due to popular fear and abuse of pedophiles, at the very lease it seems necessary to increase understanding of the disease either to have an educated argument against incorporating pedophiles into society or to decide how to better incorporate them into society.


The definition of a pedophile is an adult who is attracted to a pre-pubescent child. The necessary age difference is roughly determined as someone at least sixteen years of age whose victim is at least five years younger. The onset of pedophilia is around eighteen to twenty two years of age and is almost exclusively a male disease. Pedophiles vary in background, type of sexual assault committed, and cause of onset. Victims are usually children that the perpetrator is either related to or has a preexisting relationship. Most victims are boys and most offenders have two or more victims.(8) Perpetrators range from those who have sexually molested multiple children to those who have never practiced deviant sexual contact toward children but have become involved in masturbation through child pornography. Sexual deviance is sexual behavior that is inappropriate and harmful to the self or others. Pedophilia is a sexually deviant illness because it causes possible harm to the self and necessary harm to the victim.  Pedophiles are often described as charismatic, popular with both children and adults in their community, and are usually perceived as trustworthy. Pedophiles may be aware that their actions toward children are criminal, and therefore against the law, but almost all pedophiles deny that they harm or abuse children. This denial can continue even after being caught, incarcerated and put into a sex offender program. Perpetrators do not usually stop victimizing until caught due to their intense denial that their behavior is immoral. Often, not until placed into a treatment program, and learn to understand and control their disease can pedophiles understand the harmful extent of their actions.(8)


Now that some background to pedophilia has been explained, a summary of possible causes is necessary to continue with the discussion of reintegrating pedophiles into society and working to understand and prevent further offenses.[1] The cause of pedophilia is uncertain and varies among perpetrators. Perhaps the most popular explanation for pedophilia, meaning most widely circulated within the public, is that pedophilia is caused by pedophilia. Put more clearly, child molesters were molested as children and due to varying psychological and emotional trauma, they therefore become sexually deviant as adults. However, this explanation is partial and only applicable to a portion of child molesters. It is said that “While past sexual victimization can increase the likelihood of sexually aggressive behavior, most children who were sexually victimized never perpetrate against others.”(1) Therefore, the argument that the behavior exhibited by the disease also causes the disease in the victim is not a full explanation. Other theories come from studies which have analyzed the brain structure and chemical organization of pedophiles. Although these have revealed possible levels of organic factors explaining the sexual disorder, “Despite multiple investigations, evidence of a causal relationship between abnormal brain functioning and pedophilia has remained elusive.”(5) Another argument is that pedophilia is a combination of genes and culture within the family. This observation states that pedophilia is common in families due to biology and a learned acceptance of deviant behavior. These theories explaining pedophilia are helpful but incomplete. “Any theory of pedophilia must be multifaceted and account for the wide range of behaviors, fantasies, and organic factors that may play a role in the development of this disorder.”(7) Therefore, theories can include the claim that pedophilia is caused by molestation as a child, but must also include other factors.

Pedophilia is an interesting disease because although it is frequently discussed with regards to morality, it is never incorporated into a conversation surrounding moral ambiguity. Sexual attraction to children is unquestioningly immoral. Why is the abuse of children so deeply monstrous? One major reason stems from society’s belief in the innocence of children. Pre-pubescent children are not yet sexual beings and they do not understand the dynamics of touching in a sexual manner. They are always victims because they easily trust and therefore are easily coerced. This paper is not questioning the moral ambiguity of child molesting. Instead, it seeks to question that if pedophilia is largely an unpreventable disease, how do we position ourselves to judge these individuals, and how should we expect them to judge themselves? Rethinking judgment in this case is not the same as rethinking the wrongness of the crime, but rather of the individual. There are no excuses for sexually victimizing a child, but there are ways of preventing the act through greater understanding.

Regardless of what specific moral standards a person uses to guide their behavior, the average person expresses malicious sentiment toward pedophiles. Many people consider beating or killing a pedophile a justified community service. Even in prison, there is such prevalent physical and verbal abuse of pedophiles that some prisons must separate sex offenders from the other prisoners for their protection. It is strange how a crime can be so terrible that it warrants another crime, meaning the assault or murder of the pedophile. If it is the case that pedophilia is often unpreventable and always incurable, is it not also the case that any one of us is at risk for pedophilia? With this possibility in mind, should we try and be more sympathetic, or would sympathy mean forgiving a heinous crime and at the same time sacrificing critical moral guidelines? This is not necessarily the case. For example, in the film The Woodsman, a convicted pedophile is released from prison and struggles with his past offenses and continued urges. The audience is asked to be sympathetic but also recognize that his deviant behavior is harmful. Understanding and perhaps sympathizing with those who suffer from pedophilia does not mean believing child molestation is acceptable. Pedophiles must be incarcerated and treated for their disease and forced to recognize that their behavior is extremely harmful. The Center for Sex Offender Management explains that

Not only does sex offender reentry pose difficulties for the offenders themselves, but it can also be a challenge for victims, communities, and professionals who have a role and stake in the process. Nonetheless, building upon promising approaches to reentry within the general correctional field, aically, effective strategies can be implemented. (1)


The Center for Sex Offender Management accepts that sex offenders will be reintroduced into mainstream society, and therefore it is best to understand the disease in order to fully prevent its harmful effects. Sympathy and understanding of the pedophile does not mean that necessary ethical guidelines are extinct or that pedophiles should not take personal responsibility. Instead, greater awareness and understanding brings personal responsibility and neuroscience together.


















9.      Young, Deidre, psychotherapist, works with sex offenders and victims

[1] For a fuller description of causes, see previous web paper which outlines many debated causes of pedophilia.


Anonymous's picture


An issue related with under-age sex is when sexual abuse is performed on a very young child by a very young child.

The child is arguably too young to have learned this behaviour. Therefore, one must assume such behaviour is innate. If it is innate, then it is natural.

Another issue is that sexual abuse is often contrued as violence. How about a very young sexually active child who is also paradoxically passive in the extreme.

More research me thinks!!!

por_la_verdad3's picture

"Sexual attraction to

"Sexual attraction to children is unquestioningly immoral." Wrong. Sexual orientations can't be judged in terms of moral, as long as they are feelings. Feelings can't be judged in terms of good or bad because of what they are.

por_la_verdad3's picture

Too bad, pedophilia is not a

Too bad, pedophilia is not a disease but rather a different sexual orientation :/

pete's picture

Some good insights there...I

Some good insights there...I am afraid you have mixed in many of the myths and misconceptions about pedophilia.

The main problem is that the extent and nature of pedophilia is unknown and unknowable because of the fear and paranoia of society. So studies using sex-offenders are taken to inform us about the group pedophiles... they are not the same thing.

Paul Grobstein's picture

pedophilia and the brain

I too think you've opened some important areas for continuing conversation. There is, if we're on the right track neurobiologically, an important distinction to be made between feelings that one may or may not have significant control over and actions taken as a result of those feelings.
merry2e's picture



I wanted to thank you for the paper and the insights you provide on a devestating illness. I think it is a much needed topic of further exploration and discussion. It definately highlights the connection between "personal responsibility and neuroscience."

Thanks again,


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