Morality and Hate Crime

17 maj 2011 | In Crime Emotion theory Ethics Hate Crime Moral Psychology Psychology | 4 Comments
Hate Crimes are wrong. While the ”Crime” bit already suggests as much, the ”Hate” bit pushes it definitely over the edge. We can think of acts that may be illegal, and being of a type that ought to be illegal, but which, under the circumstances, might still be the right thing to do. Or that, under certain circumstances, would be complicated enough to raise important moral questions concerning the status of the individual act. Theft is an example, the moral status of which depends on ones’ conditions and ones’ options. Killing someone perceived to pose an indirect threat is another.
But if you commit a crime against someone because of a hatred of a group to which he/she belongs, justifications seem out of the question. There is no more important interest that would be served by your acting on this hatred. And if there were (if you hate people that try to kill you, say), the ”reason” for the hatred – not the hatred itself – would provide the moral justification. When Dirty Harry says ”Go ahead, make my day”, he is looking for a proper justification for an act that he would have liked to do anyway. Such justification lacking, DH would have been guilty of a hate crime against Punks, say.
Hatred, in the relevant sense, is rarely if ever justified. Indeed, it has been suggested that the term ”Hate Crime” be replaced with ”Bias Crime” or ”Prejudice Crime” because unlike ”Hate”, those terms imply a fault – either that the belief is false, or that it is based on insufficient evidence. ”Hate” is an unfortunate word in the context, especially if we believe that hate can occasionally be an apt feeling/attitude.
There are additional reasons for preferring such terms: being at the receiving end of hatred is very nasty indeed, nevermind how irrational that hatred is. Being the victim of a prejudice, on the other hand, puts the responsibility squarly with the perpetrator.
Hate Crimes seem to be unproblematically wrong, then: they are unjustifiable. A much more subtle question is: Can they be excused? Committing a Hate Crime may never be the right thing to do (Even if I commit it to ”blow of steam”, thus stopping me from committing an even worse crime later on, this would not be a hate crime:the motivation is not hate, even if hate is part of the explanation of the crime), but can I be blameless for committing it? Can the hate I feel, or the prejudice/bias I manifest – be overwhelming, or can it have grown within me without my knowledge, and without my being able to stop it?
A further reason to step away from the word ”Hate” is that it suggests a temporary emotional state, and comes too close to  facilitating a ”temporary insanity” type excuse. When a hate crime is committed because of the criminal being provoked into a state of rage by the appearance of people of the despised group, it is not this state of rage that we wish to punish, but the disposition that made that rage a likely thing to have happened.
Even if I can not be held responsible for my emotional states (and that is a debatable point), and my emotional states may be so uncontrolled that I may not be responsible for my actions when I’m in one, I AM responsible for being the kind of person who would be provoked by certain things. If you can’t stand the heat, you should move slowly into the kitchen in order to adjust – perhaps open a window? – and not trust yourself with any sharp utensils just yet.
Committing a crime out of hatred is not like ”temporary insanity”, but more like killing someone with your car when driving drunk.
There are more complicated ”excuse” type stories about hate crimes, however. Explanations that take a much broader perspective on criminals and criminal actions in general, and assign partial responsibility to society, to parents, to friends, co-workers, to chance. If the justification of punishment is retribution, and require pure, unadulterated responsibility, then perhaps some hate criminals should not be punished. Perhaps the only true hate crimes are cases where the hate is in some hard to determine sense YUR OWN. If, on the other hand, we think that the function of law and punishment is deterrence, rehabilitation, public safety, and there are additional reasons to keep the law simple and displaying equal treatment, then we might have to ignore these stories and continue to view hate crimes as, in essence, inexcusable.

Hate Crimes are wrong. While the ”Crime” bit already suggests as much, the ”Hate” bit pushes it definitely over the edge. We can think of acts that may be illegal, and being of a type that ought to be illegal, but which, under the circumstances, might still be the right thing to do. Or that, under certain circumstances, would be complicated enough to raise important moral questions concerning the status of the individual act. Theft is an example, the moral status of which depends on ones’ conditions and ones’ options. Killing someone perceived to pose an indirect threat is another.

But if you commit a crime against someone because you hate a group to which he/she belongs, justification seems out of the question. There is no more important interest that would be served by your acting on this hatred. And if there were (if you hate people that try to kill you, say), the ”reason” for the hatred – not the hatred itself – would provide the moral justification for the act. It then becomes important which your reason is – the hatred or the reason for the hatred. When Dirty Harry says ”Go ahead, make my day”, he is looking for a proper justification for an act that he would have liked to do anyway. Such justification lacking, DH would have been guilty of a hate crime against Punks, say.

Hatred, in the relevant sense, is rarely if ever justified. Indeed, it has been suggested that the term ”Hate Crime” be replaced with ”Bias Crime” or ”Prejudice Crime” because unlike ”Hate”, those terms imply a fault – either that the belief is false, or that it is based on insufficient evidence. ”Hate” is an unfortunate word in the context, especially if we believe that hate can occasionally be an apt feeling/attitude.

There are additional reasons for preferring such terms: being at the receiving end of hatred is very nasty indeed, nevermind how irrational that hatred is. Being the victim of a prejudice, on the other hand, puts the responsibility squarly with the perpetrator.

Hate Crimes seem to be unproblematically wrong, then: they are unjustifiable. A much more subtle question is: Can they be excused? Committing a Hate Crime may never be the right thing to do (Even if I commit it to ”blow of steam”, thus stopping me from committing an even worse crime later on, this would not be a hate crime:the motivation is not hate, even if hate is part of the explanation of the crime), but can I be blameless for committing it? Can the hate I feel, or the prejudice/bias I manifest – be overwhelming, or can it have grown within me without my knowledge, and without my being able to stop it?

A further reason to step away from the word ”Hate” is that it suggests a temporary emotional state, and comes too close to  facilitating a ”temporary insanity” type excuse. When a hate crime is committed because of the criminal being provoked into a state of rage by the appearance of people of the despised group, it is not this state of rage that we wish to punish, but the disposition that made that rage a likely thing to have happened.

Even if I can not be held responsible for my emotional states (and that is a debatable point), and my emotional states may be so uncontrolled that I may not be responsible for my actions when I’m in one, I AM responsible for being the kind of person who would be provoked by certain things. If you can’t stand the heat, you should move slowly into the kitchen area in order to adjust – perhaps open a window? – and not trust yourself with any sharp utensils just yet.

Committing a crime out of hatred is not like ”temporary insanity”, but more like killing someone with your car when driving drunk.

There are more complicated ”excuse” type stories about hate crimes, however. Explanations that take a much broader perspective on criminals and criminal actions in general, and assign partial responsibility to society, to parents, to friends, co-workers, to chance. If the justification of punishment is retribution, and require pure, unadulterated responsibility, then perhaps some hate criminals should not be punished. Perhaps the only true hate crimes are cases where the hate is in some hard to determine sense YOUR OWN. If, on the other hand, we think that the function of law and punishment is deterrence, rehabilitation, public safety, and there are additional reasons to keep the law simple and displaying equal treatment, then we might have to ignore these stories and continue to view hate crimes as, in essence, inexcusable.

4 Comments »

  1. Even if you’re not responsible for your emotions, which could be argued to a degree, I agree, then you’re still responsible for your acting on them in such a way that it is an issue for the law, or rather: a crime.
    Can’t see any way in which having a strong emotion about something can be an excuse. I guess I think the same is true for passionate crimes, but to be honest, don’t know enough about that.
    It’s interesting stuff, nice post.

    Comment by hippocampa — 17 maj 2011 #

  2. Hi! Thanks!
    I’d say there are cases of strong emotional experiences that more or less overrides any vetoing power the agent may have. At any rate that we should recognize that acting against ones emotions may be difficult. The agent, even if ultimately responsible for the action, may at least be less blameworthy (depending on how the emotion came about).

    If emotions are, at least in part, dispositions to act, it would seem to follow that if you are not responsible for the emotion, you are not responsible for the disposition. You may be responsible for letting that disposition manifest, however.

    Comment by david — 17 maj 2011 #

  3. I agree to a degree ;-)
    If you know you are subject to certain emotions that might undermine your reasoning, you have a bigger responsibility: namely, to avoid situations in which the emotion might be triggered.
    That might have the very nasty consequence that indeed, you cannot go shopping in the mall or something, but with the knowledge of your condition – i.e. a potentially dangerous and reason undermining one – comes this responsibility. It is never a mitigating factor.
    Particularly with hate crimes, you cannot argue that you didn’t know you excessively hated this group so much, or at least, that seems highly unlikely.

    Comment by hippocampa — 17 maj 2011 #

  4. I agree with your first point: that’s the point of the drunk driving analogy (If you know you are likely to get drunk, and this affects your judgment, you should give away your car keys and so on). It is also, come to think of it, the point with the heat-kitchen analogy. But yet, there are situations when you could not predict that the emotion would arise. If you are the jealous type, should you knock before entering your own bedroom? Some provoked emotions, as a matter of fact, are treated as mitigating factor in American law.
    There has been debate over this in the hate crime context, when the ”provocation” has been a lesbian act, for instance. This is not treated as a mitigating factor, suggesting that the law treats warranted and unwarranted emotions differently. (See Nussbaum and Kahan’s paper on this).

    Comment by david — 17 maj 2011 #

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