Crime...and non-punishment

By Michael Miller
web posted March 1997

For years, the cultural establishment has denounced punishment as an immoral, barbaric relic. Under their influence, our governments have weakened criminal penalties as much as they could. For example, the Young Offenders Act has reduced the punishment of minors to a bad joke. Now we face an eruption of violent crime, particularly by youths, of unprecedented extent and viciousness.

A businessman has his shop robbed 16 times in just a few years. A young mother is stabbed to death in her own home by a couple of "young offenders." Little girls are brutally raped and murdered. The public pleads for severe punishment of criminals. The government response? Zero. Icy indifference.

This indifference is puzzling. These same leftists acquired the title of "bleeding hearts" precisely for their extreme sensitivity. They weep when unwed mothers are treated sternly by public opinion. They moan over the homosexual activists who are ignored by normal people. They grieve for the homeless. They feel the pain of those female "servers" who feel "demeaned" by being called waitresses. They are exquisitely sensitive to suffering. So why do they stonily refuse to consider increasing the punishments for violent crime?

When begged to take action, they blandly repeat that "punishment does not deter," and offer as their solution to crime the legal harassment of law-abiding gun owners. They show no awareness of the utter irrelevance of their "solution." Such blindness in supposedly sophisticated politicians is surely remarkable. What blinds them?

There is a clue in their mantra, "punishment does not deter." They treat it as a holy absolute, even though most of us regard it as obviously false.

Why do we regard it as false? We take it as obvious that most men shun harm to themselves. Therefore, most men will be deterred by punishment. The few who are not deterred merely get what they asked for: they should have been deterred.

Observe the last premise of that argument, namely that men should be deterred by punishment. It is the final clue.

The actual moral argument for punishing crime is not just that punishment will, as a matter of fact, deter crime but that it should deter crime. Implicit in the punishment of criminals is the moral premise that one should avoid harm to oneself. And that in turn rests on the premise of egoism, the view that one should as a matter of morality seek one's own good.


In effect, the law says to every citizen, "Here is the evil which will befall you if you commit a crime. If you are so willfully unselfish as to bring this evil upon yourself, you will thereby deserve to suffer it." In setting up punishments, the law invites men to be selfish and avoid punishment. Punishment rests on egoism; it relies on the motive of selfishness.

This is true regardless of the action which is punished. If selfish actions are punished, the law merely contradicts itself. In forbidding the selfish action, it says "Don't be selfish." In threatening punishment, it says "Be selfish."

Yes, this implies that the law is consistent only if the actions it forbids are unselfish. As a matter of fact, criminal actions are unselfish. Or do you think it would serve your best interests to rob, assault, murder or defraud your neighbors? Do you think the good life is a life of crime? Then you are exactly the kind of man who needs punishment to keep him honest! Do you expect to be taken seriously in a moral argument?


We can also understand the leftists' peculiar combination of slobbering sympathy for some, and stony indifference to others.


In a society where criminals are severely punished, it is in everyone's selfish interest to avoid crime and its consequent punishment. Those who are law-abiding are to that extent acting selfishly and by acting selfishly, they avoid punishment. Criminals, who invite punishment by their crimes, are by that very fact acting unselfishly and are punished. The selfish are spared, and the unselfish are punished. Punishment, by its very nature, always punishes unselfishness. It spares selfishness.

On the egoist premise this is fine and dandy, but it is an intolerable contradiction for altruists. An altruist is one who holds that selfishness is wicked, and that unselfishness is the essence of morality. Because punishment necessarily falls on the unselfish, and spares the selfish, this means for an altruist that it falls on the moral, and spares the immoral. Altruists must regard punishment as inherently immoral.

And they do. Leftists are altruists. That is why they try to pretend that penal institutions do not inflict punishment. That is why they re-name prisons "correctional" institutions. That is why they refuse even to consider capital and corporal punishment: the penal nature of these is too obvious to be evaded.

The punishment motive is the flip side of the profit motive. Altruists oppose both. On the altruist premise, any punishment severe enough to deter anyone from anything is an engine of immorality: it makes men selfish. Therefore, if punishment cannot be entirely abolished, it should be watered down to impotence.

Now we can understand the actual meaning of the mantra that punishment does not deter. That mantra, which seems to be merely a false statement of fact, is actually a moral principle, derived from the premise of altruism. It really means that punishment should not deter, that it must not be allowed to deter. No wonder leftists casually dismiss all evidence that men are deterred by punishment: it is irrelevant to their actual doctrine.

We can also understand the leftists' peculiar combination of slobbering sympathy for some, and stony indifference to others. Both come from the premise of altruism. If you review the groups which call forth leftist sympathy, you will observe that they have a feature in common: they all have "loser" branded on their foreheads. Being a loser qualifies one for altruist concern. In this context, a loser is one who fails to understand his interests and/or disregards them. If unselfishness is the essence of virtue, losers are paragons of morality!

Altruism breeds sympathy for criminals. Criminals, after all, are the world's ultimate losers. Every decent man loathes them. They must skulk in the shadows of life. They are heedless of their true interests. The life they have chosen guarantees their ruin even without legal punishment. They are natural objects of altruistic sympathy.

What of the criminals' victims? What of those innocents who are robbed or murdered? They'll get no sympathy from a consistent altruist: they were minding their own business running a shop, tending a home, or just growing up. For an altruist, minding your own business is wicked selfishness. For an altruist, innocent victims are not innocent.

Icy indifference to the victims of crime, combined with syrupy sympathy for losers, would once have been a mere theoretical projection, but no longer. It is now blatant. The same crowd which seeks to protect its pet groups from an unkind word ignores bloody murder. The same crowd which coos at "single parents" is unmoved when a married mother is stabbed to death in her home. The same crowd which seeks to soothe a few non-entities who are offended to be called waitresses sits on its collective hands when little girls are murdered.

Leftists can ignore the public's pleas for tougher punishment of criminals: coming from self-proclaimed altruists, these demands are contradictory and most men would say they regard selfishness as immoral. As long as the public grants this premise, the leftists will win every debate. They know this, know that the public does not know it, and regard the public with the condescension of a civilized man toward a gang of savages.


Leftists dare not explain the public's error. They fear that men would reject altruism if they knew that it forbids punishment. Presented with a clear choice between rampant crime and a moral principle, men might reject the principle. Leftists must hope that the issue remains unnamed until the public has been "enlightened."

Nor do conservatives dare to explain it. They have pretended for decades that capitalism a system based on each man's pursuit of his own profit is really an altruistic Eden. In their own contradictory way, they are as committed to altruism as their opponents on the left.

Who does that leave to explain it? It leaves you, gentle reader. If you want to fight against sympathy for criminals, for meaningful criminal punishments, and against scapegoating of innocent gun owners, then it is up to you to explain that egoism is the moral foundation of punishment.

This may require a little re-thinking. If you are in the habit of saying "selfishness" when you mean "wickedness," you'll have to learn to say "wickedness." But you won't have to change the essence of your moral code, you'll merely have to admit that it has always been essentially egoistic.

You'll have to admit a few obvious truths. Admit that it is selfish to earn one's own living, that it is selfish to be honest and law-abiding, that it is selfish to think and to learn, that it is selfish to mind your own business, that it is selfish to respect the rights of others, that it is selfish to assert your right to live. Admit that you don't really believe that any of these things will ruin you; that you don't really believe they are unselfish.

Admit that selfishness is concern with your real, actual, serious, long-term interests.

Most people are terrified of being called selfish because "selfishness" conjures up bogus images of criminality. Therefore, most decent people never describe themselves as selfish. Therefore, nothing contradicts the bogus images. The falsehood leads to fear, which leads to silence, which reinforces the falsehood. This, of course, is a vicious circle, and the situation may seem hopeless.

In fact, it is far from hopeless: the whole anti-selfishness case is nothing but a smear, and smears are fragile. Remember the smear of calling conservative Albertans "rednecks?" When the "redneck pride" movement got under way when a few Albertans found the courage to call themselves rednecks, to define its actual meaning, and to blazon it on bumper stickers the smear collapsed.

Smear-busting is very simple: accept the smear term at its actual meaning, and flaunt it as a badge of honor. This sets up a virtuous circle, an accelerating chain reaction. There is courage in numbers: the more who are eager to flaunt the smear term, the faster the movement grows. When it is big enough, the smear collapses.

When enough people find the courage to speak the truth about selfishness, this movement will take off like redneck pride. But while redneck pride blew out a minor leftist smear, this will blow out the basic leftist moral premise. In time the smear of "selfishness" will become as obsolete as the smear of "redneck."

That time may come sooner than you imagine. The left and its altruist moral premise is rotten-ripe for destruction. Ten years ago, who could have imagined the virtually total evaporation of communism world-wide? The times they are a-changing! Let's do it! Send this paper to everyone who might be interested. Photocopy freely. Post to computer nets. Mail or fax copies to distant friends. Offer talk shows your own definition of selfishness. Got any good ideas for bumper stickers?

Inform family, friends and co-workers that you now insist on being recognized as selfish. Explain by offering your definition. Then invite them to join your movement.

When John Galt's oath becomes a commonplace, the leftist, anti-punishment goose will be well and truly cooked.


PS: You may want to investigate further. For an excellent modern egoist theory, see "The Virtue of Selfishness," by Ayn Rand, published in paperback by Signet. For a good ancient one, see the "Ethics" of Aristotle, in any of numerous editions. For a fair medieval one, see Saint Thomas Aquinas' account of the "natural virtues." Egoism is not new; it was once taken for granted.

1995, by MM. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial reproduction and circulation of this article




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