Criminality and Virtue


Independence (Fireworks), Gig Harbor, Washington,
Taken by Barry Cosme, Copyright (c) 2014, All Rights Reserved

Despite the dictionary definition, at its core criminality does not necessarily correspond with unlawful behavior.  The essence of criminality is doing harm to persons or things beyond one’s self.  There are laws about theft, murder, arson and similar behavior, because some people cause harm to others and their environment.

This essential understanding is helpful because it allows us to examine a wide variety of behaviors in a new light.  If we stick with the dictionary definition, “behavior that is contrary to or forbidden by criminal law” (Google Dictionary), we may miss many harmful behaviors that have not yet been codified as crimes.  In the opposite direction, some “crimes” are the result of improper legislation or judicial interpretation and in fact cause no harm, or increased likelihood of harm to anyone or anything.  Additionally, some behaviors which have previously been crimes are no longer.  I think there is an advantage to examining behavior directly, rather than merely filtering it through the lens of the law.  This is a paradigm shift for many people.

Let’s use the essential meaning of criminality I have proposed to look at some common criminal behaviors to see if it provides any insight.  Theft clearly harms the prior owner of that which was stolen to the degree that he or she no longer has use or possession of the stolen item.  Regardless of whether it is a law of the land, we can see that theft is wrong because the thief gains the stolen item and fails to compensate the item’s owner with trade or payment sufficient to bring his or her agreement to the exchange.

Continuing to use the short list of crimes from the first paragraph, arson destroys property and harms the owner of the property by taking away its use and value.  A murderer harms the victim by making the body of little further use to anyone.  So what about less physical examples.  Let’s look next at “entitlement”.

While many find entitlement an irritating attitude, they may not fully grasp why.  It is really a shade of criminality under our essential definition.  To start this examination, let’s talk about the ideal of entitlement for a few moments.  If a party has paid an agreed price, or otherwise transferred the agreed value, to the person owning the goods or services desired, the party is appropriately entitled to these goods or services.  That is truly entitlement but now let’s consider the dark side of entitlement, the way the word is used to describe a mistaken attitude of such.  Where a party feels entitled to goods or services from an owner who has not been paid sufficiently to willingly transfer these, that party has no right to feel entitled.  In such a case, entitlement is a betrayal of the party’s intent to obtain the goods or services without sufficient compensation, thus harming those who are expected to provide these.  While this is not against the law, it is nonetheless a form of criminality.

Now, let’s imagine a political regime that invades a neighboring country without provocation, in an effort to force that country to act in accordance with the wishes of the invaders.  Again, such actions of taking what is wanted, without a negotiated payment, harms the invaded country, in addition to property damage or lives lost in the invasion.  Once again, using the essential meaning, we conclude that this is criminal, regardless of the laws of either country.

Finally, let’s consider the case of a corrupt politician.  Such a person, like all criminals, considers themselves above the law.  He or she could take advantage of the law for his or her personal gain, or even incite  others to pass a law that compels some person or group to give up their land, property or service without sufficient compensation.  Such action is fundamentally like slavery, the handling of native peoples, internment, prison camps and such atrocities.  Clearly, such politicians are criminal, regardless of their rank, office, wealth, power or status.

So what does this have to do with love, miracles, enlightenment, self-help or personal growth?  To answer this, we need to consider the many virtues that compose the opposite of criminality.  The essence of virtue is the desire for improvement and growth for all concerned.  Kindness, patience, humility, liberality, diligence and the like have been held out for millennia as a template for living-well.  In each case, behavior based upon such virtues bring a win-win, a benefit to all.

These virtues are different facets or results of the fundamental motivation of wanting the best for all based upon an implicit or explicit understanding of the connectedness and unity of all creation.  In the end, what is best for me is what is best for all.  This is the center not only of morality but also of Being itself.

This recognition is part of enlightenment and part of compassion, the spirit that lies at the core of all major world religions.  At the same time, this understanding is a practical guide to self-improvement, a growth mindset and… to a vastly better world.