Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Crime Healthy for Society?

In his book on the sociological method, Emile Durkheim argues that while individual criminal acts may be pathological to social health, crime itself actually is good for society. At first glance, we think that eliminating all crime would be a positive ting, it would lead to a healthier, more productive, more progressive culture. But then he invites us to imagine a society with no crime. Such a place would not long remain because we criminalize acts that are abnormal. We start by tolerating small deviations from the norm in order to concentrate on those that are most deviant. If no one is committing those, he contends, society will then criminalize less and less abnormal behavior until it is enforcing an unhealthy degree of conformity. Smaller and smaller differences would be criminalized until there were no differences left and these differences are what produce the options that give rise to social change and progress. The existence of crime provides the space to keep healthy differences legal.

Further, he argues, it is only when a crime is committed that we have a chance to focus on a given law and think about whether or not it is a prohibition that helps or hurts the society. It takes a Dred Scott case, for example, to focus on and clearly enunciate what a law really says and that is a necessary step in social change. We would never critically consider a rule that was never broken. We need to see what it means to live in a way that violates a rule in order to have a standpoint from which to think about the value of the rule itself.

Is this argument for a seemingly bizarre conclusion cogent? Should we be glad for crime?