Punishing causes

3 januari 2012 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime Moral philosophy Moral Psychology Uncategorized | Comments?

”Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, remember? I remember very little of the substantive debate but I do remember that it spurned a debate on the use of non-committing slogans in political speech. The immediate appeal of slogans should not be dismissed as a mere trick, however.

There is a quite obvious and quite relevant issue hidden in the slogan: How does, or should, our approach to crime relate to our understanding of, and approach to, the causes of crime? Presumably our toughness or softness on crime should be modulated on the basis of our perception of the causes in question because clearly, all crimes do not share causal histories and clearly, this matters to how we assign responsibility.

Quite generally, causes are relevant to responsibility and to criminal punishment as punishment is meted out on basis of, and in proportion to, the harm agents cause. A highly valid defense to the allegation of murder is to say that you didn’t cause the person to die. Or, actually, accurately and more precisely: that you didn’t do it. To murder someone is not only to cause the death of another, but to do so while trying to do so.

The most obvious causal component of relevance to responsibility/culpability is the decision. We are condemned for the things we decide to do, and decisions have consequences.  Reasons and considerations are presented to us, or thought up by us, and then we make a decision to act on some of them. We are then held responsible for at least the causal consequences that we had reason to believe would follow. But decisions are not where causal chains end. And while deciding to do something that will cause harm when there is no reasonable amount of compensation is surely blameworthy in it’s most paradigmatic form, it’s not the end of blameworthiness either.

Yet, there are further moral judgments to be made which goes beyond the decision. For instance: what considerations did you act on? How was the case for and against acting presented to you? Was it greed? Was it vengeance? And now the question becomes: can we add to a criminal sentence on the basis of pre-decision causes? We seem to be able to subtract from a sentence on basis of certain causal pre-cursors, such as ignorance or a mental episode. But can we add?

Now to the hate crime context. For theoretical reasons as well as practical ones further down the line, it’s important to distinguish between the reasons for the support of hate crime legislation and the justification of that legislation. My reasons to favor higher taxes may be that I would gain from it in the long run, but that’s not sufficient as justification as tax rates are not in place to satisfy my interests. It does mean, however, that I’m more likely to look for, and find, further reasons for higher taxes.

It’s very likely that support for hate crime legislation is at least in part grounded in the intuition that some pre-decision causes are worse than others. We dislike, and we are right to dislike, prejudices, vengefulness, greed etc. But it is not clear that we should punish on the basis of the moral objectionableness of pre-decision causes. Even when we are somehow responsible for having become bad people, we can’t be punished for being bad people, only for doing what bad people tend to do, and which makes them bad: harm. If there are other justifications, we should identify them. But we should be very clear that our acceptance of those justifications is not wholly founded in our independent, warranted, but legally invalid, moral stance. Or, of course, we must make the case that these pre-decision causes are reasonable grounds for punishment enhancement. Which means much more work.

Two lessons to draw from this:

1)We may maintain that decisions are where culpability starts, but that the picture is more complex then previously recognized. Decisions may be judged as worse not only on the basis of the harm intended, caused or risked, but on the considerations that was deemed sufficient for the decision to be made. To treat a prejudiced view as a decisive reason, then, is worse, for instance, than treating greed as such a reason because it is a worse reasons. Still, we are not punished for this reasons, but for treating it as a decisive reasons. (Leaving, for know, the question whether the cause and/or reason for our accepting this consideration as a (decisive) reason should influence the extent to which we are culpable…)

2) Pre-decision causes are clearly relevant for effective preventive measures. We should concentrate a lot of effort at counteracting them and the most effective means may not be punishment enhancement, or any other means available to the criminal law.

Being ”tough” on causes of crime doesn’t necessarily, or primarily, involve punishing people for having certain beliefs attitudes or dispositions, but effectively counteracting the conditions under which such beliefs, attitudes or dispositions arise.

There goes the neighbourhood

21 december 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime politics Psychology Uncategorized | Comments?


What counts as a hate crime?
Among the first questions you should ask when being introduced to a new category-concept is this: what does it cover? What qualifies as an ”X”? When given a fairly informative definition, you then quickly go on to fringe cases, and ask whether they qualify or not. This technique will make you seem polemic and lacking in seriousness. If you’re a decent philosopher, that’s at least partly true.
We need fringe cases in order to lure out the differences between theoretical models, and also to test the plausibility of these models.

Hate crimes, as we know, invoke a combination of factors, mainly crime, prejudice and the small but very significant and problematic notion of ”because of”. A crime is a hate one when it is committed because of a prejudice against a certain group (membership in which is based on some to-be-determined characteristic important to the victims’s, or somebody’s ”identity).

Now, it’s important to note that committing a crime because of a prejudice against a group, is more narrow than committing a crime because of group membership. I may believe (rightly) that the elderly are less able to catch me, running from the scene of the crime, and therefore target them. According to the so called ”victim selection model” for hate crimes, this might qualify simply because group mebership was part of the reason why I picked out this particular victim. According to the animus-model, it wouldn’t count unless I also held some negative and unfounded views about the elderly and that was part of the motivation for the crime.

The victim selection model allows for cases where the perpetrator has no prejudice, and prejudices in general do not enter the explanation why the crime took place. Semantically, this puts the label ”hate (and bias) crime” in question. But consider a further case:

A person assaults a group of immigrants that have recently moved in to the neighbourhood. The reason is that he/she (rightly) thinks that the arrival of immigrants have lowered the economic value of his/her house, and thus intend to scare them into moving away. Let’s imagine this is the sole reason, and the perpetrator can deny any prejudice by saying that he/she would’ve assaulted anyone whose presence in the neighbourhood had that effect.
What does the animus model say? Well, no animus is present, so this seem not to be a hate crime. The victim selection model, on the other hand, would presumably rule it in.

However: the peculiar feature of this case is that the crime is still committed because of prejudice. It’s just not the prejudice of the perpetrator, but that of the potential byers of property. On one interpretation of the ”because of” clause in the hate crime definition, then, these sorts of crimes would count. In many respects, these crimes seem to be at least as shady, and in some sense cowardly, as crimes committed on the basis of a prejudice that you have yourself. They presumably do as much damage. But should they count as hate crimes?

It depends, you might say (and rightly so), on the proper analysis of the

because of

. It’s just that this analysis depends on the plausibility of what’s included, like the fringe case above. And that in turn depends on the moral foundations of hate crime legislation. A question that, as reader of this blog may have noticed, is far from settled.

Hate Speech as Hate Crime

27 oktober 2011 | In Crime Hate Crime politics | Comments?

A number of States have laws criminalizing speech on the basis of content. ”Hate speech”, as it is often known, is a regulation prohibiting certain views from being expressed. This is distinct from direct incitement to criminal acts, or, for that matter, causing physical harm by expressing a view very loudly in someones ear, by the emphasis on content. (Lets leave for now the crucial question of how to individuate content in context).
Now, Hate Speech and Hate Crime are usually kept apart. The former is much more controversial and not embraced by as many states, or by as many scholars. Indeed, its not uncommon to come across strong advocates of Hate Crime legislation that are simultaneously in strong opposition to Hate Speech legislation.

The key difference, it is claimed, is that Hate Crimes require a ”base offence”. This means that in order for a Hate Crime to exist, there must be an act that would be criminal even absent the hate motive. But in the case of Hate Speech, it is said, there wouldn’t be an offence absent the motive or content.

There is a clear weakness in this argument, and it depends on the conflation of hate motive and hate content. I can express a hateful view without actually harboring the hate expressed. Linguistic content is not a relation between my internal state and the words I use, but between linguistic conventions/functions and the words I use. If Hate Speech is a crime based on content, it is a crime that can be committed with any motive. This means that there is a ”base offence”, independent of hate/bias motive, which can then be turned into a Hate Crime, if such motives are present.

This does not mean that all states with hate crime laws should start punishing hate speech acts. It only means that what acts can be a hate crime depends on what acts are criminal in the state in question. If speech based on content is such a crime, there is no theoretical hurdle to stop it from being a Hate Crime.

Future-oriented and customized punishment

6 oktober 2011 | In Crime Emotion theory Hate Crime Meta-ethics Moral philosophy Moral Psychology Naturalism Neuroscience politics Psychology Psychopathy | Comments?


Legal punishment is normally justified by appeal to Wrongdoing (the criminal act) and Culpability (”the guilty mind”). These are features focusing on the perpetrator, which makes sense as it is he (nearly always a ”he”) who will carry the burden of the punishment. We want to make sure that the punishment is deserved.

But it is also typically justified by appeal to societial well-being. To protect citizens from harm, to promote the sense of safety, to reinforce certain values, to prevent crime by threatening to punish, to rehabilitate or at least contain the dangerous. According to so-called ”Hybrid” theories, punishment is justified when these functions are served, but only when it befalls the guilty, and in proportion to their guilt (this being a function of wrongdoing and culpability). Responsibility/culpability constrain the utilitarian function. Desert-based justification is backward-looking, while the utilitarian, pro-social justification is forward-looking. (Arguably, the pro-social function is dependent on the perceived adherence to the responsibility-constraint.)

Neuroscientist and total media-presence David Eagleman had a very interesting article in The Atlantic a while ago, pointing out that revealing the neural mechanisms behind certain crimes tends to weaken our confidence in assigning culpability. Rather than removing the justification for punishment, Eagleman suggests that we move on from that question:

Continue reading Future-oriented and customized punishment…

Hate Crime and Interchangeability

20 september 2011 | In Crime Hate Crime politics Psychology | Comments?

Hate and Interchangeability

A key concept in distinguishing Hate Crimes from other crimes is Interchangeability. This seems to be a main feature of group hatred: treating members of the target group as interchangeable: any person belonging to that group could be selected. In their 2002 book Hate Crimes Revisited Levin and McDevitt argue that this means that there is an amount of randomness in these crimes. Any bearer of the targeted characteristic is a potential victim, and this is at least partly why the psychological impact of hate crimes on the targeted group is so severe. Systematically ”random” acts of violence influence the feeling of security of populations more widely then does, say, violence between criminal gangs.

The hate in hate crime is generalized hate, it is not intended to encompass hatred for individual persons based on individual characteristics. But it is not entirely general: the crime cannot be totally random, the victim not, totally interchangeable. Then it will not be a hate crime. Two types of hate motivations then seem to fall out of the hate crime picture

1) The perpetrator does not hate black people, just this person

2) The perpetrator does not hate black people, but all people

If the psychological effects of random acts of violence are such as Levin and McDevitt suppose, then, presumably, the latter alternative should be even worse. Or possibly we are not that bothered by complete randomness (we are very unlikely victims), but by randomness within a smaller group to which we belong, either because we are more likely victims (our feeling of insecurity would then be inversely proportional to the size of the group) or because we sympathize more with victims of our own group.

The Central Park Jogger

In the highly publicized ”The Central Park Jogger Case” back in 1989 these sorts of considerations came into view. The victim, a 28 year old white female investment banker, was jogging in central park when she was assaulted, raped and beaten nearly to death by a gang of youths. Evidence suggesting that she was targeted because she was female, or upper middle-class, poured in, suggesting race-, gender- or class-based hatred. But so did evidence that the gang was looking for a random victim, based for instance on earlier assaults by the gang. Interchangeability, then, plays a double role here:

1) Would they have assaulted anyone coming along at that time?

2)Would they have assaulted any woman/ white person /investment banker?

There is an important discussion going on whether rapes should more commonly be understood as gender-based hate crimes, circling around this question: is the hate involved general enough? Is the reasons for targeting women exclusively reducible to gender-hatred?

Hate and acquaintance

Hate crimes are normally understood as being committed by a member of one group against a member of another, distinct group. Recorded hate crimes tend to be cases where the victim and the perpetrator does not know each other. This is in contrast to other types of crimes (Levin and McDevitt, again). But while this is so, it might be due to how we conceptualize and understand hate crimes. If there is a personal relation between victim and perpetrator, we are less likely to understand the hatred as generalized. Spousal abuse, while terrifyingly common, seems to be understood as based in the particulars of the relation, and thus does not qualify as hate crimes. The interchangeability condition is not satisfied in the ”right” way. Alternatively, it is too difficult to distinguish the general from the particular in crimes within personal relations.

This might mean that hate crime legislation has a blind spot, however. In a recent report from RFSL (The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights) about ”HBT and Honour”, it is pointed out that many HBT-people are assaulted by family members because of their group membership. Even if this too involves violence between distinct groups, being distinct in one characteristic is compatible with being overlapping in others, such as family membership.

Group hatred may drive violence even within personal relations. Many instances of rape, even in relationships or between acquaintances, may be caused by gender-based hatred. It is hard, however, to show the interchangeability aspect in acquaintance cases. This may also mean, rightly or wrongly, that the self-interested psychological effects of perceived randomness does not occur when we are informed about these crimes.

Expanding the Label

Should the hate crime label be attached to a wider set of cases? Would the victims of assaults within a family, say, or victims of rape, benefit from being recognized as the victims of hate crime? While perceived ”randomness” may mean that more people will feel threatened by the occurrence of these crimes, it might also provide some solace to the victim: the assault was, in fact, nothing personal. It could have happened to anyone.

But these are complicated psychological matters: It depends on how much I identify with the relevant group membership – being targeted because of being female, say, might not feel ”random” at all, but strike at the very heart of my identity. Even if I do feel it’s random, this very fact may make the event ”senseless”, and I may feel even more unfortunate because it happened to me for no particular reason. Some victims may benefit from finding some ”meaning” in the assault, but others may suffer from it. Especially in cases of rape, ”blaming the victim”, even by the victim her/him-self may seem to make sense of the particular assault, but result in more suffering. And making sense of the particular assault by focusing on the characteristics of the perpetrator, especially if the victim stands in a close personal relationship to him/her, may tie them closer together, at great personal cost.

If the Hate Crime label is effective in offering support and protection to especially vulnerable, disadvantaged or frequently targeted groups, there seems to be no objection to expanding it to cover cases which may at the surface look as instances of personal hostility. Whether it is effective in this regard is another question.

Hate Crime Economics

27 maj 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime politics | Comments?


Justifications for punishment enhancements. The arguments in favor of hate crime laws and for punishment enhancement for hate/bias motivated crimes are manifold. They are based in a number of different views on the justification for punishment – be it retribution, restoration, education/rehabilitation, deterrence, instrumental, societal protection or what have you. In his 2006 paper ”A Defense of Stiffer Penalties for Hate Crimes” Philosopher Christopher Heath Wellman argues that all of the usual theories of punishment when applied to this domain come out in favor of punishment enhancement for bias motivated crimes. If true, this is good news – it means that the case is not dependent on a contentious issue on the justification of punishment. We might want to reach a decision on that question anyway, but we don’t have to before deciding on whether to punish hate crimes more severely than parallel crimes.

Hate crimes increasing. There is, however, one argument that is lacking from Wellman’s account, one that I’ve found myself thinking about lately, one that takes as a premiss the proposition that Hate Crimes are on the rise. This is a debated question (see for instance Jacobs and Potter’s book ”Criminal Law and Identity Politics”), because A) There is a very real issue whether the crimes are increasing, or just the reporting and B) the criteria varies between countries and the gathering of data is not fully standardized. We don’t know quite that thing there is ”more” of now is the same thing that there was ”less” of earlier. I will put these question to aside for now, and assume that we are right to worry: Hate Crimes are increasing.

If a type of crime is common, or is becoming increasingly so (Wellman points out that most instances of rape are, in fact, hate crimes toward women, and if so Hate Crime is much more common than previously thought) two factors springs to mind – 1) Attitudes are changing as to find them more acceptable (as with piracy, say), or 2) Deterrence at current rates is not working. I will focus on 2).

Punishments are costs. On the simplified economic analysis I’ve written about before (not because I think it’s correct, but because simplification brings out relevant aspects) Punishments are costs. Crimes are committed when the cost (punishment x risk of detection) is deemed acceptable. If crimes of a certain type is on the rise, and we want to change that trend rather than the law, we need to increase the cost by strengthening the punishment. If our aim is deterrence, we might want to increase punishment for crimes and transgressions in general that are on the rise entirely independently of how ”bad” the crime/transgression is. If this is our justification for punishment enhancement for Hate Crimes, we don’t need to argue that hate crimes are worse in order to reach that conclusion. This justification, mind, has no sense of proportion in it self, but only gains one if the class of relevant criminals has such a sense.

This, of course, only focuses on the cost – benefit analysis of the criminal. We can add such an analysis for the legislating body. Society, say. For society, Hate Crimes are a costly – it worsens relations between groups, it causes emotional and physical harm, it makes successful collaborations more unlikely, it halts societal progress etc. Prisons are costly too, of course, so we need to calculate the likelihood of an enhanced punishment to deter crimes of the targeted sort. If it is likely, we have proportionality between the strength of the punishment and the badness of the crime – if that is derived from a cost we are aiming to avoid.

The cost of prejudice vs the benefits of freedom of thought. Punishment is of course (as Wellman points out) not the only tool to decrease the frequency of crime, and perhaps not the most effective one either. But it is one of them, and definitely one of the most forceful means for a society to express its commitments to certain values. This, in turn may add to the cost for the crime (not only the cost of punishment, but the cost of being at odds with the expressed values of society, say). If we deem it very important, for economic reasons, that hate crimes decrease, we need not make up our minds about what it is in the mind of the criminal that tend to cause these crimes – that is not part of the justification of the punishment. It’s very possible, even likely, that prejudices have great costs. We may then, on this analysis, very well use legislation and dose out punishment in order to discourage prejudices. There may also be costs for legislating thought, of course – sense of freedom of thought is probably very important from an economic point of view. But to enhance punishment on basis of motivation is not to punish mere thought, and thus may not undermine these benefits of freedom of thought.

How much for a hate crime? What is a reasonable policy for ”prizing” things? Is it just to be set by these factors, or is there actually a prima facie, pre set reasonable punishment for certain crimes? If we really can’t stop students from crossing the lawn on campus, should we increase the fine? Is there a limit to the punishment, independent of how frequently the transgression occurs? (Set, for instance, by how important the well-being of that lawn is to us)? In the Hate Crime context – should our policy on how to punish these crimes depend on whether they are increasing or not? Presumably, it should influence police priority. As argued before, this might also be a more effective, or more fitting, means of expressing our attitude toward hate crimes.

Enhanced punishment and proportionality If the costs involved include costs calculated for society, there is a desirable proportionality between strength of punishment and harms caused by the crime. Let’s dwell on this for a while:

The harm caused, and relevant to the status of the crime, is not just harm to the individual, but the group targeted by the crime. This increased feeling of being targeted, and afraid, is part of the harm that makes these crimes particularly wrong. Now: if these crimes are increasing, fear is likely to spread even more. Any additional crime is likely to be taken as evidence, and exemplifying, this increase and thus committing such a crime when the type is on the increase is worse than if it is not on the increase. (Of course, if they are decreasing, any additional crime may postpone the positive impact of these good news, but let’s leave that for now). Thus we can say that the crime caused more harm, is therefore worse, and should be punished more – which brings proportionality into the account again.

There is a slight complication, though: if hate crimes are on the rise the impact of one particular instance may not be that important for the general increase in fear and societal discord. This is parallel to cases where a person is assaulted by a group of people. The total harm to the person may be worse than if there was a single assailant, but the contribution of each of them may be less than if assaulting the person on their own. How should we portion out punishment in such cases? My intuition here is that the total of punishment here should  not be proportional to the totality of harm caused, and thus that the individual punishment should not be proportional to the individual contribution – but to the outcome. If so, individual hate crimes on the increase should be punished more, even if the contribution to the extra harm caused by a type of crime on the increase is not larger for that individual crime.

What is wrong with Hate Crimes? Four contrast cases

24 maj 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime Moral philosophy politics | Comments?


Killing Seneca – not a hate crime?

What is wrong with hate crime? Are they worse than parallel crimes? If so, why? This is the central question, and it carries into all areas of hate crime scholarship. If we can answer this question, we would have the means to determine which crimes to include under the term, and what groups of victims and groups of perpetrators are relevant.

The distinguishing mark of hate crimes is in the motivation – hate crimes are motivated by bias, hostility, animus, prejudice, hate of group. This has impact on victim selection – usually, but not always, a member of the hated group. A hate crime may also hit someone only perceived to be a member of the hated group or – and this has often been neglected – someone important to that group. Hatred against homosexuals, for instance, may target some heterosexual gay-icon. It also has important for the type of crime and the intention behind the crime – usually the intention is to hurt the community, and thus selecting means that express this hatred as loudly as possible. Again, there might be cases where the hater only need to ”blow off steam” and thus may select a victim but make it look like an accident, or a normal robbery. In such a case, the motive would influence victim selection, but the intention is not to cause greater harm to the group. It is debatable whether such a crime should be treated as worse than the crime it is made to look like.

The main two theories about the wrongness of hate crime is

1) Hate/prejudice is wrong. The motive makes the perpetrator more blameworthy

2) Hate Crimes hurt more

Both allow for qualifications – is hate/prejudice always wrong? There is debate over whether ”hate” is the right word (it probably isn’t) since it doesn’t actually imply a fault. It might be an attitude that it is always wrong to have, but it may occasionally have the right fit – hating something that is bad/evil for instance. Do crimes motivated by hate always hurt more? Why do they hurt more? Is it because the group to which the victim belong are more vulnerable when targeted because of membership of that group?

Four contrast cases

To coax out some of our intuitions about hate crime, I present four cases of crimes directed at someone because of some characteristic that distinguish them as members of a certain group. The questions we need to ask is: 1) Are all of them hate crimes? and 2) Do all of them have the property that make certain crimes worse than others?

Case 1: The standard

A member of the majority (white, say)  assaults a member of a historically disadvantaged minority (black, say), for racist reasons while making this motivation known to the victim and onlookers. This is a clear cut case of a hate crime if anything is.

Case 2: The ”deserving” victim

A non-descript person attacks a sadist torturer (Because it complicates matters already complicated, I’ve avoided to use the standard example of pedophiles here) because of hatred for sadist torturers. Sadist torturers are, let’s agree, bad people and it is apt to have some sort of negative emotion towards them. Causing fear and withdrawal among other sadist torturers is not obviously a bad thing. Yet – the motivation is hate against someone because of a certain characteristic and, presumably, the sort of harm to the victimized group associated with hate crime occur. Should this qualify? If not, it might be that what’s wrong with ”real” hate crimes is not the ”hate”, but that the hate is, somehow, at fault

Case 3: The New Categories

Moral development often proceeds by inclusion – groups earlier held to be outside the scope of some moral category is recognized as important. Hate Crime legislation arguably begun with a focus on crimes motivated by race, and then included sexuality, religion, beliefs, disability, gender, identity etc. The list seems open-ended and rightly so – it is not a list that is needed, but a criterion. One group of victims that might be included and ”protected” by hate crime legislation is ”Goths”. As an example of an ”alternative” lifestyle. Goths have been victimized because of their group membership, by people motivated by hatred, and their community has felt the impact. (Although, arguably, reactions to crimes may make them stronger by getting support from the rest of society, and by making the group more close knit. Also: Some groups thrive under adversity) What is lacking is the historical disadvantage (they are not ”Goths” in the historical sense), which might make the trauma of victimization less ”deep”, but that is a difficult question to answer. One may argue that the historical disadvantage should not be pinned down to membership of this or that group, but to groups viewed as ”other” in general. In that case, the trauma may carry over. (Note however, that groups are usually quite protective of their distinctive pasts. If targeted because of your affiliation to a soccer team, don’t claim ownership to the holocaust).

Case 4: The Resilient Group

Let’s say I’m targeted because I’m a Stoic. As a Stoic, I don’t mind, and my fellow Stoics don’t mind either. In fact, we mind less than would other victims assaulted for whatever reason. If what makes hate crimes worse is that they hurt more, this is not a hate crime that hurt more, and presumably should be punished less. If what makes them worse is that they are motivated by hate (apt or not), then this is a hate crime in the proper sense and should be punished as much.

Conclusion and further questions

The two rationales for hate crime legislation are both important: hate and prejudice should diminish, especially the ones that tend to be expressed in hurtful acts. And the additional harm caused be targeting someone because of a characteristic that matters to him/her means that it is even more important that these crimes diminish, than that parallel crimes does. It’s bad for the victim, for his/her group and for society in general. But having, and expressing, prejudices against someone who can take it is not as bad as having, and expressing, them against someone that is vulnerable. The predictable harm is not as great, and this should have some impact on how serious we think the crime is. The resilience of the group matters when it comes to what crimes should be prioritized in order to diminish harm. Prioritizing hate crime is even more important than enhancing punishment (and might be a more apt response to what’s worrying about it, while simultaneously expressing society’s rejection of intolerance as much as punishment enhancement does).

One last consideration though: We punish hate crimes against vulnerable groups, say, because of the greater harm these crimes normally tend to have – even if this particular crime did not cause more harm (say the victim died, was viewed as a liability in the community, etc). Some, perhaps most, laws are like that – judging the act by the harm caused by that type of act, not the token. But if we are allowed to make that sort of generalization to disregard the lesser harm caused by this particular act, why not disregard it when the act is of a type that targets a resilient group? Why not say that crimes motived by hate in general tend to cause greater harm, and thus should be judged as worse, even if targeting this particular group (Stoics) does not cause greater harm?

The importance of unconscious prejudices

23 maj 2011 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime media Moral Psychology politics | Comments?


According to the expressive theory of punishment, the main function of punishment, as of law itself, is to express the values and norms of a society. To insist on certain kinds of behavior, and to disparage others. Ideally, the laws reflects the values of the people currently making up that society, as well as those tested through time, by experience and debate, from the original lawgivers (the drafters of the constitution, say) onwards. When you commit a crime, the punishment tells you and others something about how society feels about it.

When it comes to Hate Crimes, this aspect is very important: Not only do we express norms that prohibit assaults, but  we prohibit assaults motivated by, and expressing, prejudice. (In fact, a case can be made that it’s the expression of prejudice, and not its motivation, that make hate crimes worse). Even if we do not punish prejudice as such – we have other ways of expressing that norm – we punish its manifestations. And part of the motivation for doing so is to disparage prejudice as such. We could say that we punish the criminal for the hate-motivated assault, thus expressing a norm against such acts, but the punishment also sends a message against hate/prejudice in general.

Now, does hate crime legislation reflect the values of society? Are people that committed to tolerance and diversity?

The point of telling the criminal what we think is presumably linked to his/her current beliefs. So what does the hate criminal believe? What do the racists among us believe about the attitudes among the rest of us?

Legislation, government and NGO campaigning and at least some media content explicitly express commitment to diversity and resistance to racial prejudices. I take it that most ideological hate criminals realize that they are a minority, and that is part of what makes them dangerous – they are in the minority, feel threatened, disregard certain societal values and believe that they are in the right. Telling them that hate crimes wont be tolerated is hardly news, and they are unlikely to care. The expressive function, then, would be failing with regard to the criminal, but perhaps succeed with regard to the broader population.

Some racists presumably believe that, in fact, most people agree with them, even if they (we) don’t quite realize it. They blame political correctness for our current liberal and multiculturalist ”opinions”. This is very likely a persuasion that drives current populist right wing politics. They believe they only need to stir the inner racist in all of us, and that people, when it comes down to it, actually agree with them.

I’m pretty sure they are wrong about our conscious values. But are they wrong about us altogether? Among others (and more forcefully than most) the psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt argues that our prejudices are often unconscious and even at odds with what we explicitly believe. Even people who don’t associate black people, say, with criminality, tend to be primed by viewing black faces to more quickly recognize images of weapons, for instance.

If such findings reflect a broad societal phenomenon, we may ask what our values are, and how deeply committed we are to tolerance and diversity. Most of our prejudices never makes it to our conscious minds, but they still influence our judgments and behaviors. Without noticing it, tend to look for evidence that confirms our unconscious beliefs, and disregard others. This is why it is so important that even the most confirmed enlightened mind among us take a look at not only the content of their beliefs, but the inner workings of their decisions and behaviors. Most votes for the right-wing parties are not directly motivated by racism, but by the rationalizations that unconscious racism make us more likely to accept.

That a belief is unconscious does not mean that it reflects a deep fact about us. Quite the contrary – the test of whether an unconscious belief is ”truly ours” is to see what happens when it becomes conscious and tested against evidence and other beliefs. Do our conscious, considered values take precedence? Or do we adjust them to fit it our previously unconscious beliefs? What does happen when we become aware of such prejudices presumably depends on further psychological factors, but also by situational factors. Its uncomfortable to face ones failings, so perhaps there is a bit of pressure to deny that it is a failing. If people around you have a theory and a political program that incorporate your prejudice, there is some appeal in accepting that theory and that political program. It’s very important, then, that we have the means to address these prejudices when they surface, and someway to work with them.

If we are serious about our commitment to diversity and tolerance, we need to confront prejudices on all levels, and express that commitment in no uncertain terms in order to counter the populist appeal mentioned above. As has been remarked for instance by George Lakoff, liberals rarely want to address the unconscious by unconscious means. We are suspicious of such manipulation, and prefer the open and honest debate and believe that ”the truth will set us free”. But it’s much preferable when our values reflect our dispositions and emotions all the way down, when we not only believe and treat people of different races that they are equal, but instinctively react that way too. This may mean a lot more work than mere conscious conviction involves.

Does expressing our commitment to these values by enhancing punishment for hate crimes have an impact on unconscious prejudices? Or does it move our attention from the Reasons Why we should not be biased to Reasons having to do with fear of punishment? If it matters what the reason is why a criminal commits the assault, does it also matters why someone refrains from committing one? These are questions for another post.

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?

Hate Crime: Beliefs, prejudices and aggravating factors

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

Increasing or decreasing a sentence based on the assailant’s motive is common in the law, and although a person’s abstract beliefs may not be taken into consideration in sentencing, racial animus or other prejudice can be considered if they are relevant aggravating factors. Enhanced penalties are appropriate for biased inspired conduct because it is thought to inflict greater individual and societal harm, such as the greater possibility for retaliatory violence, emotional damage to the victim and community unrest.

William Rehnquist

The above statement includes much of what is difficult with hate crime legislation. It’s well worth dissecting.

First: The assailant’s motive matters, and can even affect the severity of the punishment. Presumably, this means that we rank some motives as worse than others. Note that ”motive” is not the same as ”intention” here. If I intended to wave at a friend and in the process hit someone in the face, my intention makes my action less blameworthy than if I had intended to strike that person. This is uncontroversial, but it does not speak to motive in the relevant sense. But say I did intend to strike him, does it matter what my motivation was? Again, it does, if my motive, or my reason, was to stop him from doing something bad, rather than merely to cause him harm. But this, again, is not the ”motive” intended in ”hate crime”. It is, in fact (and I will return to this matter again and again for the next 18 months), highly unclear what ”motive” is.

Second: But we can narrow down on what Judge Rehnquist has in mind: Motive is a proper consideration in law. But abstract belief isn’t. This is based on a liberal principle to the effect that You should not be judged by your beliefs, but only by your actions. No one denies that we should punish the crime in hate crime. The contentious issue is whether we should add punishment for the motive.

Rehnquist states that ”racial animus or other prejudice” can be considered if they are relevant aggravating factors. There are several questions that opens up from this statement – What is the relevant difference between a prejudice and an ”abstract belief”? Can’t I have a prejudiced abstract belief? Whatever the difference, apparently prejudices can be ”relevant aggravating factors”. But can’t abstract beliefs be aggravating factors too? Are they ruled out by definition? What is an aggravating factor, anyway? Again, we have to look at how the statement continues

Third: Enhanced penalties are appropriate when the act (”is thought”, but surely that’s not a necessary qualification) to inflict greater individual and societal harm. This harm based justification for enhanced punishment is influential, fairly uncontroversial, and has strong support in legal tradition. If your action cause, or is likely to cause, more harm, you are more culpable and should, according to the principle of proportionality, be punished more. Presumably, the argument is that any factor likely to make the crime hurt more, is thereby a ”relevant aggravating factor”. But then, why make the distinction between ”prejudice” and ”abstract belief”? Does a crime based on an abstract belief about racial inferiority, say, cause less harm than a crime based on racial animus or prejudice?

Fourth: The relevance of the risk of greater emotional damage to victim and the victimized group seems uncontroversial, but what about the risk of retaliation and community unrest? Should I rather pick on people who wont retaliate? Is it worse to attack a much loved celebrity than an unknown homeless person? On the flip side – if my crime cause not community unrest but community cohesion, because people come together in their condemnation of it, is my crime thereby less bad? Utilitarian terms and conditions apply.

One of the key challenges to Hate Crime legislation is that it criminalizes thought, or motive, and thus that it is incompatible with certain fundamental rights. The answer to this challenge is, usually, that we don’t punish thought/motive on its own. Only when it manifests in independently criminal actions. But, the critic insists, we ADD punishment for thought/motive. Surely, the extra punishment is for the thought/motive?

But what makes a hate crime deserving of extra punishment is not just that it is a crime committed by someone who also harbors prejudiced thoughts. It is not even just that he/she commits the crime because of that prejudice. It is that the crime works as an expression of the prejudice. Surely, that is what make these crimes hurt more. It adds insult to injury, and, as we now know, injury’s caused by viciousness rather than by accident, genuinely hurts more. What this means, I take it, is that a hate crime is not just the criminal act plus some motivation, it is another kind of act. The ”extra punishment” is thus not based on punishing the motivation as an additional extra to the already punished crime, but on punishing this other crime.

The work cut out for us now is to make this notion more clear.