In 6 May 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were convicted of some of the most reprehensible crimes ever to have occurred in Britain. The Moors Murderers, as they became known, were found guilty of the sexually motivated murders of children in Saddleworth Moor area of Greater Manchester area – Brady was convicted of killing three, and Hindley two. In 1987, the pair confessed to the killing of two more.

existentialismThe details of the crimes were horrific, and the pair quickly became Britain’s most notorious killers of the 20th Century. Had they been convicted just months earlier, they would both have received the death penalty for their crimes, but unfortunately it had actually been abolished whilst they were still awaiting trial.

Had the two of them received the proper and just recompense that their heinous crimes deserved, maybe their names would have been largely forgotten about – consigned to the history books. But as they were allowed to continue their wretched existence incarcerated at the expense of the British taxpayer, the pair stayed in the public eye for various reasons.

In 1986 and 1987 they were separately let out of prison in order to help police locate the bodies of the victims that they were not originally convicted of, but had recently confessed to killing. Then there was Brady’s apparent insanity which led to him being transferred from prison to a mental hospital. There were also periodic pleas for parole from Hindley, which were turned down time after time, largely because of public feeling over the case, rather than any real desire for justice amongst those who run the British criminal justice system.

Hyndley died in 2002 from bronchial pneumonia, apparently unrepentant, but Brady still lives on. He has been on hunger strike since 1999, as a protest against the conditions he “suffers” in the mental hospital in which he is kept, and he has been trying to get released to go back to prison.

He has been in the news once more in recent weeks as an inquest was set up at his request to determine whether he should remain in the mental hospital, or be transferred back to prison if considered sane. However, he failed to convince the authorities of his sanity and so he is likely to live out the rest of his days in a mental institution.

The inquest – pointless waste of time and money that it was – did yield a few insights into the man’s mindset. He is clearly without any remorse, describing his crimes as “recreational killings” and likening them to those of a petty criminal in comparison to what he calls “global serial killers and thieves like Blair or Bush” (( .This is itself a pretty revealing comment from the mind of someone who committed some of the most dreadful crimes imaginable, proving Paul’s point in Romans that you can tell that humans have the law of God written in their hearts because their thoughts are constantly either accusing or else excusing one another (Romans 2:15).

But his most revealing comment was reserved for the moment when he was asked what value he got from the crimes he perpetrated. His answer was simple and to the point: “Existential experience,” he said. ((Ibid.))

Jean-Paul Sarte, one of the fathers of the existentialist movement, said one of the most profound things ever to come out of the mouth of an unbelieving philosopher: “No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.” Well said, but unfortunately left with the option of believing that there might be an infinite reference point – God – or believing that there isn’t one – Godlessness – he chose the second option. But he rightly concluded that if this were the case, life was manifestly absurd.

Now it would be very easy for us to say that if you start from this existentialist presupposition, it will lead to the kinds of things done by Ian Brady for existential experience. It may well do, but this is not quite to the point as clearly not every existentialist atheist out there goes around killing children. The desire for existential experience could quite conceivably have led Brady to get his fix from flower arranging, or raising a family or performing cartwheels and not necessarily from the killing of children.

The point, however, is not that such a worldview inevitably leads to people committing these types of crimes, but that if it does lead someone there, their crimes would be entirely consistent with the worldview they espouse. The whole point of existentialism is that existence is what you make it. Reality is not an objective truth which exists independently of whether you believe it to be true or not. Rather it is a subjective experience which differs from person to person and so whether one chooses to get one’s kick out of soccer, drugs, making jam, killing children or anything else you like, it’s all much of a muchness.

If one accepts this explanation of reality, there is then nothing within the worldview which can condemn the killing of children. Of course most “subjective reality types” out there would baulk at the idea that such an action was okay, but then most subjective reality types out there don’t really understand the full implications of what they apparently believe and so are perhaps not as consistent as Ian Brady is on this particular point.

Yet even Ian Brady cannot maintain a consistent existentialist approach. Despite his claim that a desire for existential experience was the driving force behind his wickedness, Brady unwittingly shows the impossibility of living within this worldview, and therefore the falseness of it. In condemning Bush and Blair for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he is saying that their actions are morally wrong. Now hang on a moment. Morally wrong? What does morally wrong mean in an existentialist universe?

If, as Sartre pointed out, finite things need an infinite reference point to give them meaning, the same is true of morality. Without an infinite moral reference point – i.e. God – all the finite creatures can do is come up with their own individual versions of it. Sometimes they might even pool their morality together and claim this to be the truth, but ultimately this is going nowhere. As any good little student who has been duped into the existentialist worldview will tell you – “who’s to say what is right and what is wrong man?” Precisely, and so within this worldview, right and wrong are nothing but impossible concepts.

Yet in condemning Blair and Bush, Brady suddenly manages to leap out of his own subjective little world, in which he defines truth to be whatever he wishes and where killing children is okay, into an objective world where there is actually a standard of right and wrong that others can point to. And so he points the objective finger of moral judgement at Bush and Blair, despite the fact that his worldview simply does not allow for an objective finger of moral judgement.

Is he saying that Bush and Blair are war criminals only within his own subjective and private little worldview? He could do this, but then there would be no point in making a public statement condemning them as – to put it bluntly – who cares about you and your own subjective little worldview man! Or is he rather saying that his own crimes were part of his search for existentialist experience, whereas Bush’s and Blair’s actions can somehow be judged by objective truth? Cleary the latter, given his public utterances of indignation against these two men.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, though, that maybe Bush and Blair ordered the invasions of these countries because they were seeking existential experience as well. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him – nor to most people that imbibe this worldview – that if he wants to take the existential approach with his own actions, he has no right nor reason to deny the same experiential rights to other people, even if they decide to exercise their existential experience by invading sovereign nations. The only consistent existentialist approach is one where all experience is subjective and therefore all actions are immune from objective scrutiny.

And the reason he finds it impossible to live within his own worldview and existential construct? Simply because it is not the world that God has created. God and God alone is able to create reality, to define morality and give meaning to existence. All we can do is accept this reality, morality and meaning as objectively true because they are given by the only infinite reference point out there. Failure to do so doesn’t mean that you can carve out an alternative reality, morality and meaning somewhere in your own little subjective universe: it just means that you are going to end up either seriously messed up or utterly inconsistent, or maybe even both.