Why Do Good People Do Bad Things? The Philosophy of Criminal Behaviour.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that nobody fits the criteria of an ideal person. As humans, we are inherently flawed, and are innately inclined to display a mixture of personality traits — a kaleidoscope of kindness, selfishness, and sometimes, nonsensical madness. Despite this, we have formed society in a way that aims to regulate these traits, forming a kind of utilitarian status quo through laws and regulations that aim to promote a ‘fair’ society.

But, is there a philosophical explanation for why some people choose to break this contract of moral law, and commit criminal offenses? And, to what lengths are we capable of going to? Sure, you can steal some of your flatmate’s milk from the fridge — but you wouldn’t steal milk from a shop. The majority of people in our society have set up a kind of moral precedent within themselves, we make choices every day based on this subjective barrier. What determines this barrier, and why is it different according to the individual?

From a Freudian psychoanalytic perspective, it could be argued that people commit immoral acts when the instinctual impulses from the ID (the innermost part of the unconscious), overrides the superego (the part of the psyche that polices the actions of the ego). The ego, in this case, is the central aspect of the psyche that is comprised of both the ID and the superego, and is best described as a person’s outward personality. 

Alternatively, other theories attribute criminal behaviour, not to inner workings of the human psyche, but purely to circumstances of oppression and incentive. If a person is placed in a situation in which they are being oppressed, and are forced to commit an act, a clear correlation forms between the amount of oppression placed on an individual, and the lengths they will go to in order to relieve this pressure. Similarly, the greater the incentive or reward exchanged for a criminal act, the further a person will abandon their own moral compass.

According to this logic, it is interesting to consider what would happen in a hypothetical society where everyone had enough resources to sustain themselves and their individual needs. In this utopia – would there be any crime? If individuals were never led to want or need, would crimes ever need to be committed?

Next week, ‘Headcandy”s co-writer, Harvey Moldon, will be exploring scientific evidence which suggests that, irrespective of the kind of society a person inhabits, one may always have an internal disposition to commit crimes.

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