Are all activities that are labeled criminal really wrong from an ethical perspective? Where should we draw the line between survival and criminal behavior?
With revelations of monitoring of the communications of private citizens by the National Security Agency so fresh in the news, and the fate of Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents to the media to expose those government activities unresolved, debates about the morality or ethical premise underlying certain “criminal” acts are once again before the public. A similar case involving former Army Private Bradley Manning served to underline the moral quandaries involved in prosecuting individuals for acting out of a sense of conscience rather than for pecuniary or criminal motives. Many would argue that, as with the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the “Pentagon Papers,” that conscience in the service of a higher calling can justify breaking the law. Whether economic or social conditions should similarly excuse or justify criminal activities also remains essentially unanswerable.
The conclusion that a linkage between environment and crime does exist has posed a moral or ethical quandary with respect to discussions about when and how to excuse or justify a crime on the basis of environmental considerations. The law is more complicated than some may assume. “Homicide” is not a singular category in which the taking of any life under any circumstances is prohibited by law. The theory and practice of law has long allowed for the taking of human life when one’s own life is threatened and the act of killing is the only viable option to ensure one’s survival. The notion of “self-defense” is an integral component of criminal law in many societies. Whether social and economic conditions excuse common street crimes like drug trafficking, robbery, certain gang activities, and other crimes, however, is a more tenuous proposition. One law professor advanced the following argument:
“Social deprivation may well establish a credible explanation of how the defendant has come to have the character he has. But it does not establish a moral excuse any more than a legal one, for there is a difference between explaining a person’s wrongful behavior and explaining it away. . .Otherwise, there would be no basis for moral responsibility in any case where we knew enough about the person to understand him.” [Sanford H. Kadish, “Excusing Crime,” California Law Review, Volume 75, Issue 1, 1987]
As Kadish goes on to note,
“The strongest case for the social deprivation defense is that a state which fosters or tolerates such deprivation forfeits its right to condemn its victims. . .The social deprivation defense may be a fair vehicle for accusing the society responsible for the deprivation, but it is not a ground for excusing the deprived defendant, because by itself it fails to establish the defendant’s lack of responsibility.”
Criminal trials in which defense attorneys attempt to establish their cases on environmental factors often ignore the fundamental question of whether a crime was committed, not whether it was excusable. Some analysts believe that the proper time to inject environmental considerations is not during the trial, but during a subsequent sentencing phase. As Professor Douglas Husak argued,
“Existing law is not entirely unreceptive to these claims, although it mostly affords them significance through reductions in sentences (if not by prosecutorial discretion).” [“A Liberal Theory of Excuses,” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Volume 3, 2005]
I am not really giving you information as much as a different perspective. As a volunteer on call with the county jail for those who are in crisis, I know that often the lines between ethical and criminal behavior can be very blurred. The inmates I see can be manipulative, desperate or mentally ill. Some of the situations they find themselves in are indeed criminal where they were part of the planning of the crime. However, I also see inmates who are in situations or prison simply out of economic desperation. One woman I have worked with for years since she was released and we became friends without me knowing about her prison time, was put in jail, rightly so, for transporting drugs. The line isn't quite so clear when you know that she has three children, one of them handicapped, for whom she had tried to find help. When she found none available, she felt that this was her only option. Too often I hear about depression, abusive parents, alcoholic spouses, hungry kids, mental health drugs not available to those who need them, and those with no support system to keep them in school and out of trouble. If I were in their places, I'm not sure what I would consider criminal if I was desperate to care for my child and unable to find help. As the social safety net loosens and more homeless especially homeless kids are on the street trying to survive, I wonder how many people society needs to lock away before realizing that prison is the most expensive option--and the least effective for change. In my opinion, we need to look at more than what is criminal; we need to consider the ethics of draconian changes in policies which affect the poor more than others, that the 1% of people who control 95% of the wealth really are interested more in the bottom line than anything else, and far too many won't even look at the minimum wage which doesn't allow one to survive economically. Too many of our ethics and crime are tied to economic policies and the outdated "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" which is not very possible for too many in our population.