01 October 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Crime

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Crime.

Quite rightly, people are generally interested and concerned in the
crime wave that always seems to take place in their neighbourhood. Even
more, we are afraid of being the victims of crime and more seriously,
some still suffer from the effects of actually being victims of crime.

When Donohue and Levitt (Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics fame)
introduced the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis, which basically claims that
the introduction of abortion in the US in the mid 1970s was responsible
for the reduction of crime in the 1990s, many people did not like this

And this is the problem with crime, it is so emotionally charged that
what can be discovered by scientific investigation might be thwarted by
political or social expediency. For example, it might be easier to put
people in prison than say to sort out their economic and social
conditions before some of them go on to commit some crime or other.
Let's face it, putting people in prison is fighting crime, putting
people on a good economic base is just a humanitarian challenge. And
where is the kudos in dealing with a humanitarian challenge unless we
need to do something pronto for our PR image?

Of course, I'm not saying that some people do not deserve to be put in
prison, nor am I saying that crime can be explained away by social or
family circumstances and therefore no one deserves to be sent to prison.
Nor am I saying that there is something deterministic about economic
circumstances that leads some people to crime and not others. In
reality, irrespective of any circumstances the majority of people just
do not commit crime.

What I want to argue from my observations are a number of things.

First of all, crime is like a tube of toothpaste, no matter how hard we
try to squeeze the paste out of the tube, there will always be some
toothpaste left in the tube. The same with crime, no matter how hard we
try to get rid of crime there will always be some crime around.

My point about fixing, for example, economic circumstances (fair and
stable wages), or social liberties (family planning, abortion, divorce,
etc), is that these actions might offer some people the opportunity to
stay away from crime who maybe under different conditions might be
susceptible to crime.

Therefore, whilst jurisprudence might be concerned with the intention to
commit a crime, I submit that for the political scientist the issue
ought to be whether a person had an opportunity not to commit a crime.
How can we hold someone guilty of intent (in committing a crime) when
that person had no opportunity not to commit that crime?

Let me illustrate my point. If society discourages, prohibits or somehow
makes it difficult for a married couple to separate should their
marriage fail, how can we hope to deal with the difficult issue of
domestic violence. If society insists that people stay married then
society ought to make resources available for when such unions fail. Or
to put it in another way, if society likes the stability of marriage,
society ought to make provisions for any instability human nature is
susceptible to. After all, human nature is more fragile than some of the
lofty speculations some people insist in exercising about human

But what are the issues for the philosopher? At least one issue is the
distinction between what is just, what is fair and what is moral? For
example, why is it that if someone goes into a bank and steals a
thousand Euros this is a crime, but not necessarily a crime if
recklessly speculate and lose a few billion Euros of depositors' money.
To say that there is a law that decides both cases is, of course, not a
philosophical answer.

The reason why justice, fairness and morality matter is because
reasonable people use these epistemological structures in their daily
lives. The fact that very few people seem to agree on what is just, fair
and moral is an indication that the services of philosophers are still
required. Or at least not until the scientists can manage to squeeze out
all the uncertainty from the scientific method.

All the best,



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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Crime

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