…really just one social fact
Crime is behaviour that is intentional, measurable and directly harmful. The only reason to care about crime is that it gets in the way of the good life. Ignore anything about obeying the law for its own sake because otherwise our moral sphere will crumble. Unless the person proposing that position really does never get drunk in a pub. Also when considering this contextual dimension, please ignore any pleas in mitigation that reduce the moral agency of the person doing the deed. Helps nobody.
A lot of people get punished for behaviour that is not crime in that sense, like girls and women seeking abortion, or in the UK folk posting rap lyrics containing the n-word on social media or in Scotland, football fans singing football songs perceived as likely to rile the opposition (I thought that was what football chants were for). And a lot of people never get punished for behaviour that is within that definition, such as invading and mangling sovereign nations, toxifying drinking water and encouraging others to do harm. All the legal ins and outs – the learned exhuming of precedent, the self satisfied blather about a rules based international order or European solidarity – merely describes temporary states of convenience that match what some people and states want. The Republican Party in the USA did not want to overturn Roe because it disagrees with the Warren Court’s interpretation of the 14th or because it has a weird need to control ‘pregnant people’. It wants women to be prevented from having abortions.
So the context of crime is targeted harm. There are many factors involved which I say can be boiled down to a small set of five underlying, partly hierarchal realities – its social facts. Here they are. Top one comes first and last:
- Some people are literally psychopathic and are able to act accordingly. They will never stop and they need either watching or consequences. There are not many but the harm they cause is vastly disproportionate to their numbers.
- Some people are poorly socialised/well socialised into a harmful moral universe. You can design out some of this crime with changes to incentives.
- Some people live in a context where it is impossible to avoid morally gray behaviour. You can design out some of this crime by shifting the opportunity structure and giving people better options.
- Some people get excitement from transgression. You can ensure crime is mostly dull and unrewarding through target hardening.
- People gather in ways that increase opportunities for crime. This can be resolved by increasing guardianship.
- There is an oversupply of young males. Give them something to do or get them paired off or in a monastery. That fact should give you a clue to the characteristics of the ‘people’ mentioned in the first five factors.
Crime is mostly a male problem. At heart every aspect of criminology boils down to this seldom spoken biological fact. It holds true across culture and history. Grappling with this we often frame it in terms of masculinity as a construct, which is relevant but also avoids the issue of why we have to start there in the first place.
Men might be more risk taking, might be socialised into a harmful masculine role, might be more inclined to use violence to secure status-dominance, but they are these things as men. Culture mediates biology. The problem then becomes what we mean by biology. There are plenty of biological factors at play which can be isolated: resting heart rate, testosterone levels and the rest, but they are not causes, and do not explain what biology is and why it would be linked to crime, a fundamentally social act.
Perhaps it is simply that the relative capacity to do harm gives a proportion of men the power to do that. However that does not quite do it. Men certainly have the physical and psychological capacity to harm women, boys and girls, more than the reverse, but we also have the capacity to harm each other, which is well used. Men do not act as a class interest in that sense (Filser at al 2020). In some cases I suspect the harm men cause to women is an offshoot of inter-male competition. That does not bring us closer to a mechanism or a sense of why it matters in the way it does. We must look at why men have this capacity at all.
Edlund, Lena & Li, Hongbin & Yi, Junjian & Zhang, Junsen, 2007. “Sex Ratios and Crime: Evidence from China’s One-Child Policy,” IZA Discussion Papers 3214, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).