January 14, 1997
Part 2, Question 1 - Is there or is there not such a thing as crime?
For this question, I have chosen to discuss the following three works of literature:
Crime and Punishment, by Feodor Dostoevsky, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and Utopia,
by Sir Thomas More.
To begin with an omniscient and philosophical frame of reference, crime is only
defined as crime by the society defining it. When a mass of human beings coagulate to¬
gether and form a civilized society, they are bound to make rules and laws to follow and
bide by; for laws are one of the cornerstones of a civilized society. If there were no laws,
society would be uncivilized and in a chaotic state of anarchy. These laws are decided and
administered usually by elected officials who act as leaders in the society. From the input
of the citizens, they make laws to run the society by. And when a person breaks the law,
that is defined as a 'crime'. For example, purposeful and alleged manslaughter is a crime,
because it is a law to not kill others; people are not allowed to go cavorting around killing
whomever they please, if they did, civilization would fall. Laws and rules hold us to
Another way to define crime is through ethics and morals. Each person on this
Earth possesses a conscience; when we do something wrong, our conscience makes us feel
guilty, although some people feel less or more guilt than others about certain acts; it varies
individually. Based on this, one can define a crime as the things that make us feel guilty,
although some crimes do not make us feel guilty. Some people do not feel any guilt when
committing immoral acts; these people are deemed psychopaths or sociopaths by society.
For example, most people do not feel guilty when they break the law by speeding, its just a
way of life these days, but with complex ideologies (stealing, killing), we feel guilt if they are
committed. Our consciences also hold us to civilization.
In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the laws are already defined in Early
Nineteenth century St. Petersburg, Russia. Henceforth, when one breaks a law they have
committed a crime and are eligible for arrest and punishment by the upholders of law in
society, the police. A particular act that is defined as criminal is that of murder.
Raskolnikov knows of this very well, for he has committed two murders, both of them ille¬
gal and in cold blood. Obviously, this act is defined as criminal because of the moral and
legal implications one faces when committing it. Most, if not all people in Russia at that
time would agree that murder is defined as a crime.
But Raskolnikov has other ideas about his crime. At first, he committed the mur¬
der of the old moneylender only for his monetary gain, and her daughter was a totally
unintentional murder. After the murder, once Raskolnikov has thought the implications
of it over, he matures intellectually and sides with his extraordinary man theory. Using this
view, Raskolnikov feels he has transgressed crime...
The particular act of murder is defined as a moral crime by most people's con¬
sciences, and also by the authorities. This is such a simple concept, it is just difficult to put
into words. Murder is illegal and very wrong, as seen by the people of 'civilized'
civilizations, God, and the police. Enough said.
In Morrison's Beloved, the laws are again defined and well established in Early
Nineteenth century rural Ohio, although they are skewed toward white people; black
people have almost no rights at all. Various acts that occurred in this book can be consid¬
ered criminal acts. The acts of infanticide and segregation were definitely criminal acts,
due to the morals involved. We as humans were raised by our parents and environment
to learn that murder [infanticide] is ethically evil. So, using this knowledge we automati¬
cally process this information as wrong! That is why it is difficult to extrapolate in writing
on the subject of why particular acts are defined as 'criminal'. Murder and especially
infanticide is low-down dirty wrong, as seen by the majority of this Earth's population.
There may be exceptions to this rule when infanticide and murder seem justifiable, but
then again, there are exceptions to any and every rule.
Now, on segregation, why would any race on God's green Earth think of the segre¬
gation and the abusive utilization of a different race as just??? I think it was just the views
of the time. Most of the Americans in this era thought of these views as acceptable,
although a handful questioned the integrity of these acts with literature and propaganda.
The writing of Beloved constituted sort of a memorial memorandum to these acts
unjustly committed on the African-American people. These people were repressed and
they definitely felt this was a crime. It was not until the 1950's that Segregation actually
legally became a crime.
In More's Utopia, the laws are strictly established and enforced. Since this was a
'perfect' society, there were definitely a plethora of laws. Any acts that defied these insti¬
tuted laws were frowned upon as a crime. The decisions as to which acts are crimes was
ultimately up to the maker(s) of the laws. In the land of Utopia, everybody agreed on the
integrity of the laws that were enacted. (Although this was a Utopian community, I am
sure there were a few free-thinkers who questioned the laws, although specific laws and
protests are unavailable.) The interests of the community were served when laws were
made and certain activities are considered criminal when they break these laws. But activi¬
ties are also considered criminal in people's minds and consciences, as they learn the
rights and wrongs of life.
This book and the previous books do in totality does seem to assert an absolute
definition of what constitues the act of a crime. The laws established, the way people
thought, and God's influence all presented reasons to why crimes are crimes.
"The degree of civilization can be judged by observing its prisoners."