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To what extent do you agree with the notion that criminal activity is a product of free will?
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To what extent do you agree with the notion that criminal activity is a product of free will? The decision as to whether to commit a crime is based on rational choice, following a risk benefit analysis. The control of crime therefore, lies in a system, which establishes effective deterrents
The first thing we have to look at in order to do this assignment is to find the real meaning to criminal activity? Is picking up a pound from the street and keeping it defined as a criminal activity? Can a criminal activity be defined? And if it can, are there different definitions for different types of people, i.e. People with different ages, backgrounds or people belonging to different classes. Secondly can we define free will? What exactly is free will, is it still free will if it’s for self-survival needs? Is self-defence free will?
Another argument I will be raising in my assignment is the nature – nurture argument, are criminals born to be criminals, or is it the nurturing they receive throughout the early years of their lives that make them turn to crime or criminal activity. Another argument I will be discussing is the stereotyping of criminals; do people stereotype innocent people, whilst the real criminals get away with crimes?
Other factors I will be discussing in my assignment will be, age, ethnicity, gender, class status and religious beliefs. I will also be looking at what types of people commit what type of crime and if there is a link between people and what type of crimes they commit.
What is rational choice? Is poverty rational choice? Is being working class rational choice? In this section I will also be discussing the labelling theory within the education system, and the self-fulfilling prophecy.
To clearly define a criminal activity a lot of factors need to be taken in to account. For example there are many crimes committed by every individual daily, but are not taken in to account or taken seriously because they are too small to bother with, these are known as petty crimes. An example of a petty crime would be taking office goods home for personal use, such as a pencil. This could be an arrest-able and sack-able offence. An employer would doubtfully sack an employee on the grounds of theft, for taking a pencil home, even though taking a computer and taking a pencil could be argued to be the same offence. Taking a pencil from an office and going to a shop and shoplifting could also be seen as an equal offence, whereas shoplifting is a common offence and dealt with more seriously. Criminal activities can vary from very small petty crime to serious crime, along with the offences, another factor taken in to account by police and other authorities is, who is the person actually committing the crime. I will discuss this further.
Now I would like to attempt to define “free will”. Free will can be defined easily, one could say doing something on your own free will is doing it with your full awareness and there are no other factors making you do whatever it is that you are doing. However I am going to define free will in an alternative way to the one I have stated above. I am going to make an attempt to answer the question “to what extent do you agree with the idea that criminal activity is a product of free will?” to do this I must look at another factor such as class status. Class status may be a huge factor in the answer of is criminal activity to do with free will. To give an example of a lower class family living in a deprived low economic status area may commit crime in order to survive for example theft for food, another example could be claiming benefits. Another argument against free will crimes is blackmail, if somebody is committing a crime through being blackmailed; this is definitely not a product of free will. So is criminal activity a product of free will or deterministic factors? Deterministic is defined as when there are other underlying factors which control whether you commit a crime or not.
I shall argue that for some people criminal activity is a product of free will, but for others it is due to deterministic factors. Crimes that are due to deterministic factors are mainly fraud, theft and blackmailing. Though blackmailing is really for the blackmailers benefit. The lower working class most likely turn to fraud, burglary and theft. Although most fraud is done by middleclass, this is known as white-collar crime. Statistics show that the lower working class males that belong to ethnic minorities do most burglary and theft. This also means that, when a burglary or theft has occurred, and the police are informed, the main suspects are lower working class males, which belong to an ethnic background. White-collar crime is committed by middle class whites; this is usually involving a large organisation of some sort, from whereby a large sum of money is taken by fraud. Other criminal activities may involve rape, murder, child abuse and domestic violence. These are most likely done by free will and have no excuse, unless done by self-defence, which I will discuss further later on in my assignment. Crimes such as drug taking, are another story, for example if somebody becomes addicted to drugs, they may go to any extent to get money for those drugs. This may result in theft of money, which arises the question again, is this due to free will? This is a risk taking by the drug user, they commit the crime, taking a risk, but in the end it can either benefit them or not. Vandalism or damage to a property, may be done for revenge purposes, or for self pleasure, either way, it would be due to free will, and the criminal would not benefit anything other then self pleasure unless they were being blackmailed or doing it for money. Revenge, is a complicated area to look at, if somebody wants to get their own back, and has nothing else to do but take revenge, they could damage their rival’s property, and this would not be a risk-benefited analysis. On the other hand they could commit theft, which may benefit them. The criminal would have thought the revenge through; therefore it would be done on reasonable choice.
Is self-defence due to free will? If somebody injures someone by defending him or herself, is this seen as a crime committed by free will? I would say no it is not, because if it were free will, it would be done alone, not as a defence. Another factor we should consider is peer pressure. For example under age smoking and drinking is illegal, but there are many people who try smoking under the age of 16 due to peer pressure. Would this be seen as free will or something else? If the crime of underage drinking was committed and it was based on reasonable choice, would it be following a risk benefit analysis? In my opinion no it wouldn’t. This crime isn’t taken as seriously as say, drug taking.
I shall also like to include in my assignment, some of the worlds recent drastic events. Suicide bombing. I am mentioning this because I feel another factor that should be taken into account whilst explaining if a criminal bases his crimes on rational choice, following a risk benefited analysis, is religious beliefs. The suicide bombers, the criminals, went to the extent of killing people as well as themselves to put a point across to the world, there religion and the beliefs belonging to that religion. They decided themselves, to kill others and to end their life in this way, this was a rational choice made by themselves, they felt that after this, one could say “criminal activity” they would benefit the world, and other people of their religion, by getting their opinions across and heard. They believed they would have benefited themselves, by having a place in heaven in the afterlife, and also that they have made their families and other people sharing there beliefs proud, so this is also another benefit. As many, like myself believe this is wrong, the criminals themselves believed they were right in what they were doing.
Other factors I would like to discuss, are age and gender. Different age groups commit different types of crime, and authorities treat different age groups in different ways. For example, if a teenager attempted to shoplifted something, for example an item of clothing, this would be seen as a very serious offence, whereas if an old man, aged 70 with a walking stick attempted to shoplift an item of clothing, the police would take it a lot lightly.
Now I would like to discuss the nature nurture debate. This is the debate to whether a criminal is born a criminal or is socialised in such a way that they become a criminal. Some people believe that criminals are born evil and are meant to be criminals and there is nothing you can do to stop them, where as the other side of the argument expresses the opposite. Everyone is born the same, and it is in the upbringing, the early childhood years, determine what type of person the child will become. It is the primary socialisation and the secondary socialisation that determine if the child will be a criminal or not.
What is exactly meant by rational choice? Is poverty rational choice? Is working class rational choice? Poverty is not rational choice, but it is the choice of capitalism, it is society that creates poverty and working class people, and it is society that keeps them there. Without the working class, society wouldn’t run properly, society needs people to do the working class jobs; therefore there is a system whereby the elite stay the elite and the working class stay in the lower status of society. This system includes schools, like for example the elite go to private schools or grammar schools. Only the rich middle class people can afford to send their children to private schools and grammar schools. And the middle class people are the ones who are more educated and have better jobs, therefore with their children going to private schools, their children will be above children of lower class, and will stay the elite therefore get better jobs and stay middleclass. There is an argument concerning the lower class children that attend public schools, it is called the labelling theory, which results in the self-fulfilling prophecy. This occurs when a child for example a child from a working class background, attends school and the teacher knows they are from a working class background therefore labels them as working class. This also happens with the middleclass child, the teachers label them as middleclass. As the teachers have labels of these children, like the working class child is from a working class background therefore will stay working class. They see them as failures in school; they will not succeed and will stay in the lower sets of subjects. Same goes for the middleclass child, they are seen as the elite and get labelled elite therefore stay in the top bands and streams. This occurs because of the self-fulfilling prophecy, the self-fulfilling prophecy is when a teacher labels a child, and the child becomes that label. There were many studies done to check if this actually occurs in schools, and it was proven to do so. When a child is labelled clever, they feel clever and become that label. This is the same with a child labelled “thick” they become the label. This is what is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. There are also some sociologists that challenge this view, they believe when a child is labelled it is not necessary for them to become the label; they may try hard and prove the label wrong, and instead of failing do really well. The typical cycle of a working class child is that they go to school, get labelled as failures, become that label of failures, drop out of school, they result in criminal activities and stay working class. This is not true in all cases, but this is typically seen from societies point of view. As I mentioned above there is only 1 positive outcome of being labelled and that is fighting the label and doing the opposite of the self-fulfilling prophecy. But there are many negative outcomes, such as becoming that label, dropping out of the education system, which can ruin the chances of having a career, societal reactions and moral panics. By societal reactions I mean society labelling that person thick, and not worthy. They may think, he or she has not gone to college, and do not have a job, so they will be committing crimes to survive.
Moral panics such as, too many people are dropping out of the education system, that there are not enough working class jobs for everyone and there are too many jobs, and not enough qualified people to do them. This could cause a moral panic. Capitalists always create moral panics to keep society running smoothly.
Society has its own stereotype of “criminals” normally young ethnic males. This minority group does not commit all crimes; this also gives all other groups an easy way out. This group; young ethnic males, since they are being labelled and seen as criminals, this can also cause the self-fulfilling prophecy to occur. They are labelled criminals so become criminals.
A famous sociologist, R.K.Merton wrote about the American dream. He believed
that a society should best be considered as a cross between the “goals" of a society and the "means" that are believed, legally or morally. In an ideally organized society, the means will be available to deliver all of its members to their goals. Merton believed there were 5 types of people, these were, conformists, innovators, ritualists, retreatists and rebellions. They all had there own way of living, for example conformists, accepted the goals of the American dream and accepted the means i.e. the education system.
A famous Psychologist named Sheldon (1949) developed a theory linking criminal behaviour to body type. He identified three distinct body types: -
- Endomorphs who were fat, soft, pleasure loving, relaxed and enjoyed food and company,
- Ectomorphs who were thin, fragile, solitary, restrained and self-conscious,
- Mesomorphs who were muscular, hard aggressive, had high pain tolerances, callous and cared little about other peoples feelings.
Sheldon identified the mesomorphs as “criminal somatotypes, which means these had the body types of criminals, this again is just a stereotypical comment.
The effect of crime doesn’t only rely on the punishment and sentences that result of the crime, but many other factors that I have been discussing so far. Another argument I would like to raise is that of jury selection. The selection of the jury is done from the electoral register randomly, so a mix of people can be selected and brought in to the court, but as the jury is vetted after selected, it most likely ends up with middle class whites. These people may have a stereo type of criminals, for example, if they see a middle class white person on stand for theft, they may acquit, because they are also middleclass and white and may feel they are similar to the person on stand. Whereas if they see a working class white, they may find them guilty, because they are “more likely” to have done the crime, they are not like the jurors and therefore may have committed the crime. Another argument put forward by Baron and Byrne (1997). They found that an attractive defendant is at an advantage compared to unattractive ones with respect to being acquitted, receiving a light sentence, and gaining sympathy of jurors. Evidence indicates this is because beautiful is good and positive.
Even though throughout my assignment I have argued that criminal activity is not of free will, to an extent it is. Authorities such as the police and the criminal justice system have set down the law and the punishments for breaking the law. The English legal system, may have its bad points, but it does enough to keep the criminal justice system going. Speed cameras, electronic tagging and cctv camera’s have helped the criminal justice system, keep crimes of that nature to a minimum.
Word Count: 2749 words
Haralambos and Holborn. Fourth Edition. Sociology themes and perspectives
Maguire Morgan Reiner. The oxford handbook of criminology.
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