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Explaining Crime as Moral Actions

Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)

Abstract

Morality is rarely the main topic in criminological theory and research. However, an analysis of what constitutes a crime and what moves people to engage in acts of crime suggests that questions of personal morality and the moral context in which people operate should play a central role in the explanation of acts of crime. The basic arguments of this chapter are that (i) acts of crime are moral actions and therefore need to be analysed and explained as such and (ii) explaining acts of crime is not different from explaining breaches of moral rules more generally (the explanatory process is the same). A theory of crime causation should therefore be regarded as a special case of a more general theory of moral action.

Key words

  • Crime
  • morality
  • situational action theory

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Such as strain theory (e.g. Agnew 2006a), anomie theory (e.g. Merton 1968), social bonding theory (e.g. Hirschi 1969), self-control theory (e.g. Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990), control-balance theory (Tittle 1995), power-control theory (Hagan 1988), social learning/differential association theory (e.g. Akers 2009, Sutherland et al. 1992), subcultural theory (e.g. Cohen 1955), labelling theory (e.g. Lemert 1967), reintegrative shaming theory (Braithwaite 1989), deterrence theory (Bentham 1970), social disorganisation/collective efficacy theory (e.g. Kornhauser 1978, Sampson 2006), routine activity theory (e.g. Cohen and Felson 1979) and institutional-anomie theory (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007). Again, I do not claim that all these theories fail on all four points raised but that they at least fail on some and, crucially, I do argue that to move criminological theory forward from its current deadlock of diverse and competing theories we need to effectively address in a comprehensive and integrative manner all four points, difficult as it may be.

  2. 2.

    One illustrative, and not atypical, example is Felson’s (2006:35) definition of crime as “any identifiable behavior that an appreciable number of governments has specifically prohibited and formally punished”. This kind of definition does not give much guidance as to what a theory of crime causation aims to explain (because it does not tell us much about the nature of crime, only argues that crimes are behaviours that many governments prohibit and punish). Applying Felson’s “definition” to the explanation of criminal acts by the situational model of his and Cohen’s (1979) routine activity theory would read something like this: an identifiable behaviour that an appreciable number of governments has specifically prohibited and formally punished is caused by the convergence of a motivated offender and a suitable target, in the absence of a capable guardian. The latter (convergence of offender, target and lack of control) does not make much sense as an explanation of the former (behaviours prohibited and punished by many governments).

  3. 3.

    E.g. Agnew (2006a, b)

  4. 4.

    E.g. Hirschi (1969), Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, 2003)

  5. 5.

    E.g. Kornhauser (1978), Sampson (2006)

  6. 6.

    E.g. Cohen and Felson (1979)

  7. 7.

    Nicomachean Ethics, book three.

  8. 8.

    The distinction between causes and causes of the causes is, of course, a simplification, because we can (in the form of causal chains) have causes of the causes of the causes, and so forth. Arguably when the aim is to explain action, however, the most important distinction analytically is between causes and the causes of the causes (not between, for example, “the causes of the causes” and “the causes of the causes of the causes”).

  9. 9.

    Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:175) suggest another, but in my view less satisfactory, solution to this problem: “we must define crime such as that it includes at least the majority of acts defined as criminal in all societies” (compare Felson’s definition – see footnote 2). The key question here is why the definition of crime only should include the majority and not all acts defined as criminal. In fact, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s definition of crime as “acts of force or fraud undertaken in pursuit of self-interest” (ibid.:15) is rather a definition of certain kinds of acts (that may or may not be regarded as criminal – they talk about crime and analogous acts) undertaken with a certain kind of motivation, i.e. in pursuit of self-interest (see further Wikström and Treiber 2007).

  10. 10.

    On the surface, the situational model of SAT has some basic similarities with the situational model of Cohen and Felson’s (1979) Routine Activity Theory (RAT). However, while SAT focuses on explaining how the intersection and interaction of people and settings (propensity and exposure) produces a causal process (a perception–choice process) that brings about acts of crime, RAT focuses on specifying the necessary conditions for a crime to occur (the convergence of a motivated offender, suitable target and lack of capable guardians) without really explaining how this convergence is supposed to cause a person to engage in an act of crime (for a more detailed comparison of these two theories, see Wikström et al. 2010).

  11. 11.

    Directly as causes, and indirectly as the causes of the causes.

  12. 12.

    Guilt refers to a person feeling bad about his/her actions; shame refers to a person feeling bad about his/her actions in front of others. For example, a person may not feel much guilt for shoplifting, but may feel shame if his or her parents were made aware of the shoplifting (on moral emotions generally, see Tangney and Fischer 1995).

  13. 13.

    Which may be the alternative to do nothing.

  14. 14.

    Habit economises with effort. Just imagine if every action taken during a day was preceded by a process of rational deliberation; we would hardly accomplish anything.

  15. 15.

    Some of these coping factors refer to key explanatory concepts in other prominent criminological theories such as social control (e.g. Hirschi 1969) and differential association theory (Sutherland et al. 1992).

  16. 16.

    Agnew (2006a, b:80) makes a similar argument as regards the effects of strains: “experiencing several strains at once is especially likely to generate negative emotions and tax the ability to cope in a legal manner”.

  17. 17.

    Just as people vary in their desires and commitments, they also vary in their emotional sensitivity to particular frictions.

  18. 18.

    On the relationship between motivation and action generally, see Heckhausen and Heckhausen (2008).

  19. 19.

    Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:111), in a later work specifically on self-control, argue that “people who do not develop strong self-control are more likely to commit criminal acts”, that is, poor self-control explains why people commit crime (while strong self-control explains why people refrain from crime).

  20. 20.

    Hirschi (2002 p. xvi) argues that “the view that crime is need-based or strongly motivated behavior has produced a series of concepts and hypothesis sharply at odds with the facts”.

  21. 21.

    This would certainly hold even if we allowed for (differential) opportunity.

  22. 22.

    Generally referred to by Hirschi as “social control theory”.

  23. 23.

    Also referred to by the authors as “a general theory of crime”

  24. 24.

    For a critique of the concept of crime in self-control theory see Wikström and Treiber (2007).

  25. 25.

    Although Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:105) acknowledge that “those not socialized sufficiently by the family may eventually learn self-control through the operation of other sanctioning systems and institution”.

  26. 26.

    They argue that all actions, including acts of crime, are undertaken in the pursuit of self-interest (a generalised motivation for action). However, as Popper (2000:xx) points out regarding the idea that “all human actions are egoistic, motivated by self-interest”; “this theory, with all its variants, is not falsifiable: no example of an altruistic action can refute the view that there was an egoistic motive hidden behind it”.

  27. 27.

    The role of motivations may be particular pertinent in the explanation of cases in which a crime or breach of a moral rule refers to an action in which few would be motivated to engage (such as incest). Generally, the more specific and less common a desire, commitment or friction is as a reason (motive) for engaging in an act that breaches a particular rule of conduct, the more important the part that the specific desire, commitment or friction will play in the explanation of that particular breach of a rule of conduct.

  28. 28.

    When analysing the role of moral rules in crime causation, it is further important to clearly distinguish between (i) a person’s moral rules as causes of his or her action and (ii) the factors that influence (as causes of the causes) the internalisation of a person’s moral rules. The latter is important when explaining why people come to have certain crime propensities, while the former is important when explaining why a person acts in a particular way in response to a particular setting.

  29. 29.

    Encouragement may in some instances include being neutral or indifferent to a particular breach of a moral rule. For example, if a person has a strong wish to smoke cannabis and the circumstance (setting) he or she takes part in is indifferent to such an action this may be enough to encourage him or her to go ahead with it.

  30. 30.

    Environmental influences on the development of personal characteristics are likely to vary between developmental phases (for example, they are often much stronger in early compared to later phases of life).

  31. 31.

    Human, financial and social capital that affect his or her agency (power to make particular things happen).

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Wikström, PO.H. (2010). Explaining Crime as Moral Actions. In: Hitlin, S., Vaisey, S. (eds) Handbook of the Sociology of Morality. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-6896-8_12

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