Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crime Is What We Make It

Given that crime is a social construct, a divination of a popular consensus of what should be controlled (or whatever the most powerful groups in society can impose) then it would hardly be a surprise if what constitutes a "crime" differs somewhat across cultures, societies and time.
Except - and tell me if I am wrong here - I have a sneaking feeling that all societies across all of history classify theft and murder as crimes. True?


  1. The Spartans, being a religious lot, regarded being caught for theft, as worthy of punishment, rather than the theft itself; since it was the Gods who determined who was going to get caught.

    Similarly, any society that holds ideals above all else, are prone to forgive some murder and theft, if it is regarded as consistent with said ideals. Consider Robespierre et al, who murdered 10,000 people in the name of liberty. And think of practically every socialist totalitarian state, from the Soviets, to Nazi Germany, Pol Pots Kampuchea, and Mao's China; the concept of murder and theft became relative, and utilitarian.

  2. Depends how you define "murder" I think, and that certainly alters across cultures and through history. The Aztecs, for example, practiced human sacrifice. We would certainly class religiously motivated killing as murder, and it may be that killings that are socially acceptable now (capital punishment and soldiering for example) will come to be classed as murder in the future.

    So, no, I think you are wrong here.

    1. I tend to lean towards the attitude that the primary purpose of the law is keeping society stable and productive, rather than enforcing right and wrong. Killing someone as a sacrifice to the gods is not necessarily more right than killing someone because you were angry at them, but it is less dangerous to the stability of the community.

      If we make the admittedly somewhat questionable assumption that I have the slightest clue what I'm talking about regarding about the value of a legal system, I think it does follow logically that there should be rough equivalents to the crimes of theft and murder in most societies. They just don't necessarily apply to all instances of killing or taking things one didn't produce/earn. Most societies have some sanctioned forms of killing - vengeance killings, duels, public execution, sacrifices, military action, etc. We've been whittling those down, over the years, but the last, at least, still persists just about everywhere. 'Murder' separates uncontrolled, or unsanctioned killing, from killing that is ritualised in such a way as to minimise the damage to social stability. Similarly, there are controlled, acceptable ways of getting things without eaning them (the stock market in our modern society comes to mind,) but they have to impose enough limits onthat working to produce the real wealth of the society still seems worth it to the majority of people. When that fails, things start to go downhill - and if the governing body of said society is clever, they shift the boundaries of what is accepted until things are back in balance

  3. Dammit! Wrong???? I will never hear the last of it...

  4. ...Off to the correction gulag with you!

  5. Err Ben think about it ... killing is an act but not all killing is classed as murder. So how does one killing become murder and another not? There you have the social construction which turns an 'act' into a 'crime'. Likewise with theft. Take £10 of mine and you have either committed a theft or made a profit! The PPI scam was a con but are the banks and their dishonest staff charged with theft or otherwise treated as criminals? Of course not they are able to settle the matter through civil law. A favourite quote from Shaw which ninety years later is as true as ever
    "The thief who is in prison is not necessarily more dishonest than his fellows at large, but mostly one who, through ignorance or stupidity steals in a way that is not customary. He snatches a loaf from the baker's counter and is promptly run into gaol. Another man snatches bread from the table of hundreds of widows and orphans and similar credulous souls who do not know the ways of company promoters; and, as likely as not, he is run into Parliament."