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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #22, 10/3/2006

Four Kinds of Crime

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

While observing the stream of delinquents passing through Juvenile Court, I have begun to detect some patterns. There are a broad range of alleged crimes presented to the judge, from shoplifting and graffiti to sexual assault and manslaughter. I am beginning to see, however, that all infractions—both juvenile and adult—fall into a few broad categories.

I am interested in what motivates a person to break the law. A simplistic answer is that they are "bad" or had a poor upbringing. I am more curious, however, about what it feels like at the time. What is the immediate motivation for the perpetrator — especially when the crime is obviously self-destructive.

I have deduced four basic motivations for breaking the law, several of which can contribute to the same act. Not all of these motivations are responsive to our traditional method of dealing with crime, which is punishment.

Crime for Material Gain

The most obvious crime is one committed for material gain. You want something, so you take it. For whatever personal reason, you covet an object or privilege, but there are legal barriers to obtaining it, so you breech them.

Cheating on your taxes is a fairly clear example of crime for material gain, as is breaking a shop window to steal the merchandise. Of course, there may be something complicated behind ones desire — the need to feed a drug habit, for example — but the motivation at the time is pretty straightforward: I want something, so I'll steal it.

Crimes for material gain are surprisingly rare in Juvenile Court. Yes, kids shoplift from Wal-Mart, but far more go joyriding, write graffiti or use drugs, crimes for which there is no possible material gain. Kids tend to be undirected in their criminal activities. For the majority of crimes, not only is nothing actually gained, but nothing material is expected to be gained at the time.

In adult court, I imagine that the proportions are different: There may be more materially directed crime, with a higher level of sophistication. Still, a material motiviation certainly doesn't explain all crime. Most crime, I contend, doesn't make any sense in terms of personal gain. It is stupid crime, but stupid in certain predictable ways.

Impulsive Crime

Most crime in Juvenile Court reflects some defect in emotional control. "I just wasn't thinking," says the kid when confronted by the judge. That's about the best the kid can come up with, because he doesn't really know why he did it.

When a kid gets angry, he's probably going to act out. He's going to break a window, punch someone or, if he has access to a gun, shoot someone. Most kids and many adults have never developed the emotional controls to mitigate their impulses. If they feel something, even for a few seconds, then they may feel compelled to act upon those feelings, regardless of the long-term consequences.

The human body (and human mouth) can be a terribly destructive weapon when you lose control of it. It takes only a few minutes to cause enormous devastation — enough to change dozens of lives forever. When it's over, you may immediately feel genuine remorse and shame, but is often too late.

Impulsive crime is not goal directed. Instead of being "drawn" to an attractive object, you are "pushed" by unpleasant feelings inside you. At the time of an impulsive act, there is no real thought of gain. It is more like, "I am feeling something humiliating inside me, so I must act immediately to try to make this feeling go away."

I define impulsive crime as an action taken in the short term: on a scale of seconds or minutes, not days or weeks. You don't ruminate over an impulsive act; you just feel it, then do it.

Narcissistic Crime

Some crime, while gaining the perpetrator little, is not impulsive. It can be planned over time and executed in deliberate steps, perhaps with like-minded colleagues. An example is the Columbine massacre, where the perpetrators stockpiled weapons and formulated a strategy before letting loose.

Obviously, there is nothing material to be gained from shooting a bunch of people and committing suicide. Likewise, there is not a lot of measurable benefit in becoming a serial killer or rapist. There is certainly an issue of impulse control involved but a different kind than simply feeling, then immediately reacting.

Narcissistic crime arises from a fundamental delusion about ones place in the world. The narcissist believes that he is the center of the universe and that the feelings of others have no value. The world, however, does not acknowledge his specialness, so he is forced to do things to prove it.

All of us begin as narcissists. We believe, at first, that we are the center of the universe. It is only over time and a healthy maturation process that we discover that we are just one soul of billions and that others have feelings just like we do. Some people, however, are unable to recognize this or have not yet made the transition.

Kids want, above all, to prove their value and uniqueness to the world. Paradoxically, this is the only way they can escape from narcissism, because they need a solid sense of self before they can appreciate others. If their environment devalues them and does not give them an opportunity to prove themselves, then they will seek self-esteem by devious means which often involve damaging property or hurting others.

Kids join street gangs to serve their narcissistic needs, because the gangs give them some sense of affirmation that they don't believe they can get elsewhere. Kids draw graffiti also to assert themselves. There is absolutely nothing to be materially gained by spray painting your "mark" on a building, but it feels good because it gives you a sense of dominance and control over a environment that otherwise does not acknowledge you.

Narcissistic crime gives the perpetrator the feeling that "I exist, I am powerful, I am important." This is a far more significant motivator than anything you can steal from Wal-Mart.

Statutory Crimes

A final category of crime reflects a natural clash between the individual and the state. Some crimes are not really goal-directed, impulsive or deliberate. They are committed with no evil intent; they just "happen." The law says one thing, but maybe you haven't read the law, or the law is irrational, or you haven't thought through all of the implications of your relatively innocent actions.

You are driving down an empty highway, and without thinking about it, you go a little faster than you should, and a cop pulls you over and gives you a ticket. Technically, you broke the law even when you hadn't really intended to.

You are going through an airport security checkpoint, which seems like an annoyance, and you try to be funny by making a joke about a bomb in your briefcase. You get arrested and are charged with a federal crime. Did you break the law? Technically, yes. Did you intend to break the law or cause any disruption? No. You were just ignorant of the law and miscalculated the effects of what you said.

Kids are much more vulnerable than adults to situations like this because their experience in the world is more limited. They don't know how saying or doing the wrong thing can be misconstrued.

Sometimes, the law itself is stupid. It is written by pea-brained legislators who are responding to the hysteria of the moment. The law will never intelligently address all of the complex issues of your life, so sooner or later you are going to have to break it.

Just pray you don't get caught.

Reader Comments

“It describes Narcissistic crimes as impulse, to educate Law officers when a pattern of false police reports go off the rictor scale=liars. a psychological diagnostic assessment =narcissistic is someone I know. repeated false reports keep harrassing me. The Law can't tell the difference between a liar and who tells the truth. About 17 reports against me are lies and I still have the Law harrassing me.” — 1/20/07 (rating=5)

“It's a very intelligent piece. He knows what he's talking about and I'm going to use this in my speech.” —Josh Higgins, Howell MI 3/12/07 (rating=5)

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Page Started: 10/3/06 Keywords: criminal juvenile delinquency criminology