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Is there such a thing as a victimless crime?

JaywalkingAhead of the IF campaign event in London this weekend, regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight considers if there are such things as victimless crimes and morally good crimes.

On a cafe forum for debating I posed the following question; Can anyone think of a victimless crime, where 'victimless crime' means a crime committed whereby in the general sense there is realistically no possibility of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm?

Just to be clear; you can't say something like "I could make a call on my mobile phone whilst driving (which is illegal), and then hang up with no one unharmed" - because although in the specific instance no one was harmed, in the general sense someone could easily be harmed (if you lost control and had a crash).

Despite lots of evidently faulty suggestions (see below), one that was offered by several different contributors was "smoking weed on your own in your own house". I felt compelled to add the caveat; if you are growing the drugs yourself, then fine, that's a candidate for a victimless crime. But if you are buying the drugs from a drug dealer, then there are costs (you are aiding someone else in committing a crime). But even the growing of the drugs yourself and smoking them on your own still does not really qualify for there being "realistically no possibility of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm", because if the effects of
weed smoking in excess are true, then eventually for some people there will be negative externalities - if, for example, you end up imposing an excessive burden on the health service, or become addicted to harder drugs, or become dangerously paranoid and volatile.  If any or all of those things happen then others will feel the effects of your drug-taking, meaning it is not victimless at all.  Here are some of the other suggestions I got (with my comments included):

1) Downloading music or films from pirate internet sites

My Comment: No, the victims are the artists/companies that are losing money through loss of revenue. Of course, there's no guarantee that they always incur a loss, if, for example, sales increase due to dissemination of information - but some will.

2) Jaywalking

My Comment: No, this has every potential to cause harm to others. One car swerves to avoid the jaywalker, hits another, and *biff*.

3) Suicide

My Comment: What a bizarre choice, as this manifestly doesn't qualify. Suicide destroys entire families left behind.

4) Speeding on an empty highway

My Comment: I think that's stretching it a bit, and I don't think I can allow it, because the crime is 'speeding', which won't generally qualify as "a crime committed whereby in the general sense there is *realistically no possibility* of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm". Moreover, I don't think we can grant omniscience to a driver and give him or her any kind of certainty that the highway is empty.

5) Bigamy

My Comment: Again, no, bigamy potentially imposes costs on one of the wives, and one other prospective husband.

6) Polygamy

My Comment: No, polygamy imposes costs on other men and other women. Some people asked the question; what if all people involved in bigamy or polygamy are aware of the costs and the arrangement is entirely mutual between all parties?  Even then it is not enough because the cost is still incurred on those whose chances of finding a partner are minimised by the practice. Technically that is true of marriage as well - when John marries the girl you love he imposes a cost on you because your sweetheart is no longer free to marry you. But in marriage the social benefits outweigh the social costs, which is why we don't opt for a world full of unmarried people, which would then reverse the cost-benefit situation.

7) Walking nude in the street

My Comment: No, that's not an argument with much economic utility - a practice becomes prudent if the social benefits outweigh the social costs. Evidently, the costs of allowing public nudity far outweigh the benefits as it imposes costs on anyone that doesn't want to see nude people walking around the streets.

As you can see, it proved very difficult to find a suggestion for a crime committed whereby in the general sense there is realistically no possibility of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm. The only good one was, ironically, related to marriage.  One contributor proposed the following; "A victimless crime is finding a way to gain the legal benefits of being married to a person of the same sex in a place where same sex marriages are illegal".  That's a good one; there I can see no reasonable grounds to call anyone else a victim. Cleary, as well, I think it is also ironic that the one valid suggestion put forward is one that most pressingly involves the need for a law change. This shows that laws are predominantly about protecting potential victims as well as potential felons. 

Now we've considered that just about every crime or bad act has a victim somewhere, I want to consider three corollary questions in terms of economic analysis; one, concerning a crime with an unaware victim; two, concerning whether there is such a thing as a rational crime; and three, whether there such a thing as a morally good crime. 

What about a crime situation whereby the victim has no awareness that a crime has taken place?

Suppose Frank sees that Jack has a wallet full of money.  Feeling confident that Jack won't notice a missing £40, Frank steals it while Jack is asleep, spends £39 on junk food, and then bets the last £1 on a 40/1 winning horse, enabling him to surreptitiously return Jack's £40 before he wakes up.  Being completely unaware of any crime, it could be argued that it's hard to call Jack a victim of crime.  In fact, suppose that with the last £1 Frank bets on a 60/1 winning horse and returns all the money to Jack's wallet while he sleeps.  Here we have a crime in which both Frank and Jack have benefitted (Frank with free food and Jack with an extra £20).  Yet even then I wouldn't feel happy with the events that took place, because theft is theft.  That's a good example of a situation in which everyone benefits yet still there are
 of which we disapprove.

Is there such a thing as rational crime? 

From an economic perspective, yes. A man who over the year illegally parks on a single yellow line after driving to work each day might find that the benefits of the crime outweigh the annual costs.  Suppose Bob works 250 days per year, and the only car-park within walking distance charges £4 per day - that's £1000 per year.  If the road on which Bob parks illegally only generates a £30 parking fine every 4 weeks due to a feckless traffic warden, it could be argued that Bob is committing a rational crime, as his total fine expenditure throughout the year amounts to £390 (13 x 4 weeks x £30) leaving him £610 ahead against the annual car-parking expenditure of £1000.  That's not to say that we should endorse a crime even if it is rational, but it is rational by any standard definition in economics (see Gary Becker's Rational Choice Theory for more on this). 

Is there such a thing as a morally good crime?

It depends on your perspective, but at an individual 'singular' level, quite possibly.  If, like many of us, you place a higher premium on helping the people most in need in the world (people desperate for drinking water and food) over the people with not such urgent needs (like having smoother tarmac on the road, or searching for alien life) then it could be argued that any singular crime that involved you withholding income tax money from the Government and giving it to much more desperate people in Africa is actually a morally good crime.  I say 'singular crime' because clearly if everyone in the country tried this then many of the nation's vital services would be severely impaired.  But the man who is fed up with the Government's profligacy in relation to injudicious foreign policies, expenses scandals and overpaid executives, and decides that he will take it upon himself to give the money directly to those for whom it will do the most good, must in some way be more mindful than most.  Here is a situation in which the law is being put up against a man's conscience, with the conscience coming out victorious.  Although we may be right to disapprove, it should be said that in terms of net good, the man's act is positive and has improved the well-being of the planet overall. 

As you may have noticed, the underlying commonality that runs through the above considerations is that irrespective of whether there is a victim (or victims) in those scenarios the agent committing any bad acts or having bad intentions is the one that bears the costs of the outrage on his or her conscience.  Let's consider why that is. 

In moral philosophy a lot of emphasis is placed on examining actions against the intentions behind the acts, with long-standing debates about which has primacy of importance.  To me, for a moral position to be truly fruitful for the agent, the actions and intentions must be coterminous.  To ask which is more important is a bit like asking a student of poetry whether the words or the form are most important for his studies, or asking an architect whether the foundations or the bricks and mortar are most important for his building project. 

The mutual importance of intentions and actions can be seen by the fact that each can occur without the other in a way that diminishes the true value of what the outcome would be if they were coterminous.  For example, a vicar or a newspaper columnist could have plenty to say about good moral behaviour but could in private behave wretchedly.  That would be a case of having good moral expressions but not the actions to back them up.  Conversely, a man could outwardly behave morally in actions but inwardly have ulterior motives borne out of bad intentions, such as when people do good acts for bad reasons or selfishly with only their ulterior motives as the concern.  So the only hope of achieving true moral goodness is when there are good intentions to back up good actions, or when there is an act that is done with the best of intentions that turns out to produce a bad outcome that can still be a situation of moral good for the agent with the good intentions.  If the agent's intentions are good, then we may still say that moral goodess has occurred, even though what is visible to us is not always the full picture.   

In basic terms the consequentialist moralists are those who judge actions centrally on consequences; and the deontological moralists judge actions intrinsically in relation to duty.  For example, a homeless man stealing a loaf of bread to feed himself and his young son may be allowed by the consequentialist, whereas the deontologist would maintain that stealing is wrong, no matter what.  Deontologists might not always agree on what particular offence is 'always wrong' - but being a deontologist means you think some things are always wrong.  Of course, just as above, deontology does not just refer to the action itself - it is the action coupled with the intention and motivation.  The difference between borrowing £10 and stealing £10 is in the intention and motivation as well as the act.  The act itself, when seen by an observer may look the same with theft or borrowing. 

I think the deontologists' position is inadequate, because I don't think there is any instance of wrongdoing that would be wrong at all times. Stealing from an elderly neighbour is almost always wrong - but if you had to steal a pound from her dressing table to eradicate world poverty you should do it.  Shooting a young child in the head is almost always wrong - but if you had to shoot one child in the head to save a million other children from rape, torture and then death, I think you probably would do that too.

I've made that sound quite trivial - and of course, it's not.  Clearly, shooting a child would be an immensely difficult thing to do, even for the greater good.  By way of a deontological compromise, one alternative could be that the wrongness of the act doesn't change intrinsically - in other words, shooting a child never becomes right or good under those extreme circumstances, it becomes a wrong that's preferable over a worse wrong, but is still intrinsically bad.  If I met a deontologist who contended that there are many acts that will always be morally bad, but that moral badness is a scale related to other moral badness that can be permitted in very extreme circumstances, I would agree with him.  That is a way to identify right from wrong but at the same focus on how they relate to conscience, minimal suffering, and an overall greater good.

Not being able to look inside and see people's true intentions, we would see this difficulty with a good many actions; therefore we must look in another place to find an action that has moral worth (remember any action that was the result of a good inner-will is justifiably referred to as good).  Up to now we have admitted two things.  In the first place we have admitted that the virtue of helpful actions (like doing good deeds for others) is dependent on the extent to which the strength of the inner-will is towards goodness.  And in the second place we have seen that the moral worth of an action done because of a sense of duty does not lie in what one hopes to personally attain from the action; it depends on the volitional qualities that underpinned the action.  Therefore the one who wants to have any chance of getting near to goodness is the one who acts with mindfulness to the power of virtue, and in relation to the highest moral standard he feels he can attain, not out of fear or concern for the impression made, but out of duty to the assent to goodness.  And naturally, our being galvanised and pro-active is good - but as always first off we have to begin to 'be' the change we want to see in the wider world.  This is where Jesus can be most influential, giving us the visual representation of God as the measure of our assent to God's will.

As a Christian I think that there is good reason to believe that Jesus offers us the optimum blend of deontology and consequentialism, in that if one shows the love and grace of Jesus then the consequences will be good and wholesome for the person showing that love and grace.  According to the Bible, we are so dependent on Christ's love and grace that anything we do must in some way leave us falling short of the Divine standards. There are two methods of sinning; the sins of commission that we do on a daily basis (see Jesus' Sermon on the Mount for a comprehensive list of them), but also our sins of omission.  The sins of omission are the things we don't do but know we should. As James 4:17 says "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them". 

In times when we are being continually reminded that there is more than enough food to feed the whole world, and that the top 100 richest people in the world have enough wealth to end global poverty - I think the point St James makes about the sins of omission really can strike home.  Under that rubric, I can't think of very much that we do that doesn't fall under one of those headings and leave us heavily dependent on God's forgiveness through Christ's love and grace.   The times we indulge in a luxury when we really could have had the standard variety; the times we spend money on adornments when people in the world are hungry and thirsty - these are the kinds of indictment to which each of us is justifiably subjected.  So our sins aren't just the things that contribute to others' lack of well-being in the world
(like aggression, unkindness and theft) they are the things that fail to contribute to others' well-being in the world (when we know those 'others' are people desperately in need).  Thank God that Divine grace and love are so awesome and powerful - without them we really would get what we deserve. If anything can provide us with the springboard to do much more for the neediest in the world, it is the undeserved Divine grace and love that is bestowed upon us, and the inspiration from Jesus to 'be' the change we want to see in the wider world. 

JamesKnight300James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.  

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. 
You can also contact the author direct at j.knight423@btinternet.com

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