Strong opinions, weakly held

Bill James on the human capacity for evil

In an interview with Chuck Klosterman on the subject of crime, baseball analyst Bill James talks about how a person becomes a murderer:

It is not as if we walk through one doorway and decide that murder is acceptable. You have to walk through many doorways. The first doorway leads to a party, where people are doing drugs and having fun. The second doorway leads to more partying. It’s a long, long series of doorways, until you end up in a room where a terrible thing happens. So the question is, “How many doorways away are you?” It’s not a question about a person’s capacity to commit a murder. It’s a question of how many doorways we keep between ourselves and that situation.

The whole interview is really interesting.


  1. From the linked interview:

    Or drugs: Any one of us can become a drug addict. And once you do, you will kill somebody to get drugs. So maybe that’s the way to think about this: Any real drug addict will kill you in order to get drugs.

    Wow this reads like something from the 1950s or a parody of those long since outdated views. Is this guy for real?

    For those who are unaware, not everyone can become a drug addict and not every drug addict will kill to get drugs.

  2. I did find his specific point that drugs and drug addiction are a gateway to murder to be a bit bizarre, but I couldn’t find away to excise that reference from the quote without making it nonsensical.

  3. I’m not convinced that there are people with zero potential to become drug addicts. I think they just didn’t meet a drug they liked enough. (I’ve always tried to avoid meeting mine.)

    As someone who grew up in closer proximity to criminal activity of various sorts than most, I tend to find that people believe bizarre or romantic fallacies about the nature of crime and criminals. The point you mention here is one of the big ones: that there exists a fundamental dividing line between criminal and non-criminal activities that is obvious or innate. This is what lets a large segment of the wealthy population of this country commit frauds and thefts that they would condemn heartily if only the amounts involved were hundreds of dollars and not hundreds of millions.

  4. Yeah, I’m with Jacob on both points (although from a greater distance). We have many examples of people finding themselves capable of grim behavior they’d never have thought possible (and I mean violence, not just embezzlement) when circumstances are sufficiently different than anticipated — the “just following orders” Nazi example is a bit facile, but there are plenty of examples from group psychology experiments of the last century (the prison/prisoner Stanford (?) experiments jump to mind). Drugs are just one way to arrive at a sense of desperation or disinhibition…

  5. Boy, I love James’ work on baseball, but everything I’ve read about this book makes me think it falls into the “random crank” category, rather than the “brilliantly informed crank” category I was hoping for. The drugs comment doesn’t help things.

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