If You Could Would You

After yet another night of staying up way too late, drinking way too much coffee, reading way to much stuff, etc.... this question occurred to me. No doubt it's not new, no doubt it's the underpinning of many sociological theories, discussions, arguments and flame wars. But in any case:

If you could stop all crime, and all criminal behaviour;

By eliminating people's ability to perform such behaviour;

Would you?


The question was posed in a manner which makes the following assumptions (some of the arguments below argue against these assumptions/refuse to answer the question because these assumptions are too much):

(1) we have a definition of criminal behavior with which we all agree

(2) there exists a magical switch that can force people to avoid all such behavior

(3) the magical switch is under our control - and we can turn it on and off without side-effects and easily for all human beings

The question is one of choice: would you choose to turn the switch on or off?

Assuming that I understood the question right, I would say that I would choose not to touch that switch, under any circumstances

There are many reasons for this, but here's an outline of the main idea:

Our freedom of choice defines us as human beings - if we are deprived of our choices we become lesser humans. (A good coder is good because he is aware of what bad code is, and avoids it - if he was forced to be a good coder then the words good coder would be meaningless). It is sometimes more profitable to allow for some criminal behavior - crime pays, and sometimes it pays in ways that help improve society (ie., there are exceptions to every rule).


Question is meaningless. How do you eliminate the ability to jaywalk? ...to murder? ...to lie on the stand?

Physically, you have to handicap everybody so they can't walk, can't even swing a knife, can't talk.

Mentally, well, some animals we'd consider very stupid do things we'd consider very evil, such as the Cuckoo bird, which brutally murders the children of other birds, then tricks them into raising its own child. You don't need much brains to commit what we would call "crime" if a human were doing it, so making people stupid isn't a solution.

Short of postulating some magical switch that removes the ability to commit crime (an ill-defined term in and of itself) but magically has no other side-effect, there's no way to even remotely feasibly figure out what it means to eliminate people's ability to perform such behaviour. So I can't answer the question.

The question is very well-defined given the assumptions outlined. If you refuse to see it as well-defined, that's your own poverty of imagination speaking, not anything due to reality or logic.

Jeez, you're a hostile one. It's nice that you are willing to leap to conclusions about what terms mean in order to get to that well-defined state, but how are you so sure that your well-defined state matches the original questioner's well-defined state?

If you can answer that so definitively, you're wasting your time here; go write it up in a philosophy journal and collect your due accolades for solving a problem humanity has been grappling with for all of recorded history.

Perhaps, just as a sample, you'd care to elaborate on the exact definition of crime and ability to commit crime that you are so confident exists so clearly? In such a way that nobody has any question at all what you meant (which is to say, in a communication it's not just for the speaker to assert clarity; it must be agreed on by some reasonable number of listeners as well)? And perhaps a statement as to whether or not you are the original author as well (I'm pretty sure you're not), so perhaps the original author may be able to say No, that's not what I meant. (Or would you brow-beat him as well?)

Original author here, I think I'm in agreement with the hostile one (. But for the sake of the discussion... :)

Simpler case. Prisoner's dilemma. Assume that the right thing to do is to cooperate. Assume that you have the mythical switch at your disposal. Do you flip it, and force everyone to do the right thing? And whatever your choice, is it the right thing?

-- WilliamUnderwood

PS, the occasional browbeating can be quite good for one's clarity of thought, vaguely in the sense of ZenSlap (scroll down to the mention of 'Kyosaku').

It is about changing peoples values and their ability to choose what is a GoodThing and what is a BadThing. You could probably make a case that what you are proposing as a choice is whether humankind should have some sort of control over their own behavior, that a person can choose what it is they are to do next. That the choice as to whether humankind should make choices by valuation, or by chance. You seem to imply that man chooses to do crime versus charity based on something within. To make the thing you propose happen, one would have to subtract from mankind the ability to value things. For it seems to me that that is what crime is, to do a thing you feel adds value to your life , or to add to your collection of things a thing you feel adds value to your collection of valuables that society or more correctly, government, does not see as a rightful action or acquisition.

Whoa. By that definition, working for a living is a crime! It seems to me that a crime is an action that unlawfully violates the rights of another person. It also seems to me that it is possible to enhance one's own life without committing a crime. I mean, it had better be possible, no? Otherwise we're all pretty well screwed... -- MikeSmith
(You're right as it stood it was incomplete, as were my thoughts when I quickly saved it without rereading it because of urgent business. I have restated it without reading anything below to make it my thought occurring at that time.

There are however other ways of looking at crime as being inherently wrong, or as contextually wrong. It was a crime in Iraq to oppose or speak ill of the dictator, or to speak openly and honestly in a manner freemen think of as free speech. Speaking the truth, while in some contexts is a GoodThing inherently, in other contexts the results generated by doing the inherently GoodThing is that BadThings may happen to you if you do so. As a result a corollary to that proposed to read:

If you could stop all those who make crimes of GoodThings, and exact punishment upon those who do GoodThings; By eliminating their ability to do so; Would you? -- DonaldNoyes
If we define crime as any act that violates a law then we could eliminate the ability to commit crime by either eliminating all laws or removing the ability to violate a law. Either we give up social order or we give up individual freedom. Neither option holds much appeal. -- EricHodges

My definition had two components. One pertains to law, the other to rights. In my opinion, if an action does not harm another by violating his rights, then the action should not be considered a crime. For example, where I live, gambling is illegal, but IMO it should not be, as it does not harm anyone. -- MikeSmith

Sure it does. Gambling steals money from people incompetent at basic statistics. Gambling is a tax on stupidity, greed, and most of all HOPE. That last is what makes gambling really evil; that you're taking advantage of people who would otherwise succumb to despair (because there can be no realistic hope) or do something concrete to improve their situation (because you've replaced real hope with false hope). -- rk

While I normally enjoy fencing with Richard, in this instance I must agree. I live and work in an economy where gaming (gambling) is called entertainment and it performs just as Richard says. The people who run the casinos are well respected and powerful members of the community, who with one hand offer help to those who have a gambling problem while with the other make sure no such problem is perceived publicly. The promotion of this VenusFlyTrap? includes just enough truth (you can't win if you don't play or you could be a winner) to suck in those whose analytical faculties have been impaired by the kind of reasoning sold by the current educational regime.
The question then is not is gambling evil but should such an evil be forcibly proscribed, given the absence of apparent physical harm, and I'm not sure that this works unless you have the means to suppress all criminal behavior (making something illegal often just drives it underground). This takes us back to the original question ... -- gh


I absolutely would not. For one thing, legality and morality are orthogonal subjects, which are sometimes unrelated. There are times when it is critically important to do the right moral thing by breaking the law. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslavakia is one such example. Harboring Jews in Nazi-occupied territory during WW II. The list goes on.

Further it is well known that there is no rule that is perfectly descriptive enough to cover every eventuality that can arise in reality, which is part of why judges have any discretionary powers at all.

And sometimes it is necessary to break a lesser law in order to avoid breaking a larger law (running a red light to get out of the way of an impending fatal collision or something), but the hypothetical scenario would forbid any such judgement.

You could try to patch it up by banning immorality rather than illegality, but that's even worse, because there is no strict objective definition that is widely agreed upon. Morality is either cultural and relative, or if it is absolute, there is no wide agreement on which absolute morality.

So no, definitely not.

-- DougMerritt

I know very well that a formal system of justice (as opposed to law) is powerful enough to fall under the IncompletenessTheorem?. The question remains, IF justice could be formalized completely, and IF everyone agreed to it, and IF you could make everyone behave in accordance to it, would you do so? -- rk


Now some more: Comments on what I can not do, versus what I can do (and if we can come to agreement, on what we can not do, and what can be done) and on the things that can be done - IfYouCouldWouldYou? (Please think of these with regard to programmers (the I's and We's) and programming (the acts and behaviors).)

Cannot do:

Can be done:

The answer is still as Doug's answer above -- No! -- DonaldNoyes


Help please -- DeleteWhenCooked would like a quick quotation from biblical sources for sorry if it looks a bit unrelated to this page, but I see some possible relationships.


Contributors: WilliamUnderwood

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