Hate Crimes and the Unfair Distribution of Harm

3 oktober 2011 | In Ethics Hate Crime Moral philosophy politics | Comments?

Hate Crimes Hurt More is the title of Paul Iganski’s 2001 article in the American Behavioral Scientist, and while this title could have done with an added question mark, subsequent work by Dr Iganski and others offers ever increasing support for the central claim. The harm caused by hate crimes is not just the harm done to the victim, but to the group membership to, or association with, which was why he or she was targeted, and to society as a whole. Calculated in mere aggregative terms, then, there seem to be plenty of reasons to prioritize hate crimes, to prevent them from happening and to help victims (primary, secondary and tertiary) cope with the consequences. It is important that we work out why hate crimes hurt more. The reasons may be extrinsic to the crimes in question, for instance, and thus be addressed by other means than criminal sanctions. So far, so utilitarian, so within the wrong-doing – culpability paradigm. Hate Crimes are worse than other crimes if (and only if) they tend to do more harm.

Hate crimes Hurt Less?

Now, while there is evidence for the claim that HC’s hurt more, it is far from complete, and as data collection is far from standardized across nations, it’s hard to sustain the universal claim. So now I’m going to make a bold suggestion: Hate Crimes actually hurt less and that’s what’s wrong with it.

If we focus on the harm done to the victim’s group, there seem to be at least two mechanisms at work:

1) If people like me are targeted, I’m more likely to be next.

2) I feel more empathy for people like me, so when someone with whom I share an important characteristic, I feel it more.

This means that if another group/characteristic is targeted, I’m unlikely to be targeted, and I won’t, presumably, care as much. I guess most people feel like this about gang-related violence. If totally random acts of violence occur, everyone would, presumably, feel equally threatened and thus the harm would be even greater (even if the likelihood of you being next would be inversely proportional to the group within which the random violence occur).

The suggestion here, then, is that hate crimes hurt some people more than others. And that’s what’s so wrong about them. It’s discriminatory, and prioritizing hate crimes would be an act of distributive justice, independent of claims about the extent of harm caused by these crimes. This is in line with an Harel and Parchomosky (On Equality and Hate, 1999) who claim that recognizing the moral significance of hate crimes in criminal law depends on extending the wrong-doing – culpability paradigm with what they call the Fair protection paradigm.

Equality vs Utility

This brings to the surface a very basic conflict in moral and political philosophy: It’s uncontroversial that harmfulness counts, but does equality of distribution of that harm (and benefits) count as well?  If it does, there can be conflicts. Making hate crime a priority may be very costly in terms of police efforts, for instance, and require resources to be taken from investigations addressing other crimes. In principle, we can have a situation where a smaller number of crimes, and a lesser aggregate of harm, takes place but a disproportional portion befalls a minority of the population. That scenario comes in roughly three types, testing our commitment to fair and or equal distribution:

1) The number of crimes and amount of harm befalling the disadvantaged group is smaller than it would otherwise have been – I.e. the total harm is smaller, and the harm caused to the group is smaller than in the original scenario, but the proportion carried is larger. Preferable in absolute terms, not preferable in equality terms.

2) the number of crimes and amount of harm befalling the disadvantaged group is the same, but that of the majority is lowered.

3) The number of crimes and amount of harm befalling the disadvantaged group is larger than in the original scenario.

Our commitment to equal distribution is shown by which of these we find preferable to the status quo, or if none of them are.  If, in a Rawlsian spirit, you want to look at how well, in absolute terms, those are doing who are worse of, 1) is preferable to the status quo.  (The difference principle)

Hate Crimes hurt more because they hurt some more than others

The argument made, and the mechanisms posited above, works, if at all, on the group level. There is a further argument to be made, which works on the level of society as a whole: What’s wrong with (some) inequalities of distribution is that they tend to lead to suboptimal outcomes. That is, if an unfair proportion of crimes hits certain, typically already disadvantaged, groups, this is correlated with societal discord, hostility and impoverished inter-group relationships. It makes successful interactions less likely by raising suspicions.

If this is true, a purely harm/utility driven account of the badness of hate crimes can appeal to harmfulness in absolute terms. This harm may result even if the primary and secondary harm caused by a targeted hate crime is actually smaller than that of a ”completely random” crime, or any other crime for that matter.

Changing the focus to this level does, I think, get the general problem right. And it’s not just a problem with hate crimes, but with hate and prejudice in general (I believe Barbara Perry would agree). It does, however, mean, that demonstrating the relevant harm caused by individual crimes is exceedingly difficult. And this might be right, too: while the direct harm is caused by the criminal, the Hate Crime specific harm may not be, and thus the problem should be addressed not with criminal sanctions but by other means. We could still hold an individual responsible for targeting a group that carries more than it’s share of the burden, however – it would be a crime dependent on the disvalue of unfairness, rather than of harm.

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