On Philosophy

April 21, 2007

Crime And The Purpose Of Society

Filed under: Political Philosophy,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Twice before (here and here) I have argued that the purpose of society is to give people opportunities (freedoms) and personal power, both of which enable them to better pursue the good life, whatever that happens to be for them. The rationale behind this principle is that people only choose to live in a society, and obey its rules, because it gives them at better chance at leading the good life than cutting themselves off from that society does, and thus that the most important function of society is to help them lead the good life, since that is the primary reason it exists.

So then, what does the existence of criminals, who voluntarily cut themselves off from society, tell us? Well, that depends on the nature of the criminal. For our purposes here there are four types of criminal. First we have those who are simply unstable by nature, who aren’t playing with a full deck of cards. Since there will always be such people their existence tells us nothing of interest. Secondly we have criminals who we can describe as “cheaters”. These criminals don’t make a life out of crime, they commit crimes only to try and get a momentary advantage (crimes such as cheating on their taxes, stealing abandoned items, ect). These criminals don’t tell us anything interesting about society either, although there are interesting discussions about whether it is rational to be such a criminal. Personally I think such people are deeply confused, part of them wants to be a member of society, and enjoy its benefits, while another part of them wants to break the rules and thus break away from society, but that is neither here nor there.

A third type of criminal, philosophically interesting in this context, is one who is led to crime because of poor choices they made earlier in their life. For example a drug addict who commits crimes to fund their habit is one such criminal. Almost everyone who is bound by their past mistakes in this way is failing to lead the good life, a category that includes people bound by excessive debt, kids they had at a young age, drugs, ect. The fact that such people exist reveals that our society is falling short. The purpose of society is to allow people to lead the good life, which means preventing them from making such mistakes. This is not to say that the institutions of society should constantly be watching us and waiting for us to make these mistakes. We don’t need complete protection, and some mistakes teach valuable lessons; and a nanny state is undesirable for other reasons as well. However, society can take a more active role in giving people the character necessary to avoid the kinds of mistakes that make these kinds of criminals. As a society we make a stab at teaching children math and grammar. However there is no formal institution for giving kids good character traits, including self-discipline and prudence; since not everyone develops these traits on their own there probably should be.

The fourth type of criminal, also philosophically interesting, is those people who take to crime because there is no way that they can fulfill their desires, lead their version of the good life, in our society. Often this is because they desire unreasonable things, they want to be wealthy, or to be famous, or to be remembered, but these things require a fair amount of luck, and so it is rationally best to avoid desiring these things as much a possible. Society isn’t failing by not giving these people what they want, not everyone can be rich or famous or whatever (assuming, of course, that what they want isn’t certain opportunities that are being denied to them, unjustly, by society). But society is failing by encouraging them to have such desires. People don’t just wake up one day and decide that they want to be rich and famous. Rather they get these desires because the rest of us celebrate wealth and fame, and so who can fault them for assuming that such things are important?

Fortunately these problems are fixable, relatively easily in fact. And I should point out that we are completely missing a fifth class of criminals, revolutionaries who are attempting to improve society by overthrowing it. When a society finds itself with revolutionaries on its hands then it is in serious trouble. Interestingly it seems like the problems that give rise to the fourth type of criminal may disappear on their own. Slowly but surely the internet seems like it will replace TV as the most influential media. And the internet is much less interested in wealth and fame; the internet is much more focused on content, although admittedly that content tends to be funny pictures. And the internet is much more democratic than other forms of media, anyone can run a website and be noticed on a small scale, even me. Of course TV still reaches more people than the internet, but I expect that will change eventually. It is the third kind of criminal then that requires our attention, since they are unlikely to disappear on their own. Of course one solution to that problem would be simply to raise our children better, but not everyone is equally good at being a parent, and not all children are equally easy to raise. Given that we already have institutionalized education in place it would seem relatively simple to add a few classes in self-discipline and prudence to the curriculum. But of course making such a change requires action to be taken; it isn’t going to fix itself.

Of course I am not saying that criminals should be let off the hook, and that it is all society’s fault. Law and order needs to be enforced regardless of the reason the criminal is a criminal. But just because we hold the criminal responsible for their actions doesn’t mean that patterns of criminal behavior can’t tell us something about society, specifically where it could use improvement. And, as an additional benefit, these improvements will reduce crime, if they are actually improvements, by allowing more people to successfully pursue the good life from within society, and thus removing their motivation to be a criminal.

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