A further note on the moral status of hate crimes

20 maj 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime Moral philosophy | Comments?

Whenever you look carefully at an important concept, you are likely to find that it covers disparate cases. Especially when you are looking for morally relevant aspects of things (what’s so important about being a person? What’s so good about equality?), you may find that what is morally relevant is not necessarily co-variating with the distinguishing features of the concept of that thing. (Most persons can suffer, but perhaps not all persons, and some non-persons may be able to suffer, to). When looking at Hate Crime from a philosophers point of view, two questions arise:

1) What is ”Hate Crime”? And
2) Are hate crimes worse than parallel crimes (the same act, with different motivation)? If so, why? What makes them worse?

If hate crime is to be an important moral category, these two questions better have some non-trivial connection. What transform a crime into a hate crime ought to be what makes it worse.

Currently, I’m thinking about two quite distinct instances of hate/bias motivated crimes, and whether they should be assigned different moral status. Both rely on the connection between crime, intention and harm. In both cases, we postulate that the criminal has a thought through motivation for his/her actions and that his/her prejudice is actually part of consistent (though false) moral position.

First case: The mistaken racist
This person holds the believe that people of a certain race are inferior, and that they therefore matter less. To beat up a member of this class causes LESS harm than would beating up a person of the racists own group. This view is equivalent to the view held by most people about animals: while we should not harm them, doing so is less bad than hurting a human. This person would argue that since his crime hurts less, proportionality demands that it be punished less. This view seem to have been almost part of the system before the civil rights movement gathered momentum.

Second case: the political racist
This person believes that hate crimes hurt more, and that’s part of the motivation. He/she wants to cause the maximum amount of harm in order to threaten people of the targetted group for participating in society, ultimately to disappear from the neighbourhood/country/face of earth.

Let’s for the sake of the argument accept that these crimes actually cause the same amount of harm. Are the crimes morally equivalent? The mistaken racist does not intend or foresee the greater harm caused by the crime. Indeed, he/she believes it causes LESS harm. The political racist, on the other hand, has no such illusions. If hurting knowingly is worse than hurting unknowingly, the second case is worse.

There are interesting further questions about these cases, however: What is it that the mistaken racist believes? Is it that the crime cause less physical and emltional suffering, or is it that it MATTERS less? Is it a factual or a moral mistake? Should our judgment depend on what would happen if he/she was presented with evidence that in fact there is no morally relevant difference between the suffering of people of different races?
In the second case: does it matter if the political racist believes that everything will be better for both groups if they are separated, and the extra harm caused by the crime is regretable, but instrumentally justified? He/she may even agree that her action should be judged a crime, but that the intended long term end should be counted in her favour, and not be an aggravating factor.

Again: is it the intended harm, the predictable harm, or the actual harm that matters? How important is it whether the racist commit a ”honest” mistake?

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