Every human society throughout time has understood that there are actions and beliefs that are morally wrong, but different cultures have different opinions on what is criminal.
For example, the newspaper article I have chosen to study for this paper is about the dismembered torso of a young African boy, which was found in the river Thames on September 21st 2001. It is believed that the boy was the victim of an African muti murder performed to bring luck to the Guana (muti ritualist). In the UK murder is illegal, even on the grounds of euthanasia, whereas among African ritualists it is believed to be beneficial. Several psychologists have come up with theories that attempt to explain the reasons for crime, such as Kohlberg, Raine, Bandura, and Rushton, some of which are more believable than others.
Kohlberg believes that we take the majority of our morals and beliefs from valued role models, in a similar way to Bandura in his social learning theory study. Raine’s theory is that criminality is predestined by brain formation, which means that criminals are genetically different from innocent individuals. Rushton agrees with this theory, but on the grounds of ethnicity, not brain formation.
In 1976 Kohlberg claimed that there are three levels of moral reasoning and development. They are:
* The Preconventional level, whereby individuals are still at a pre adolescent stage of cognitive processing, and have not yet developed their own personal codes of morality, and therefore obey those they respect;
* The Conventional level, which is the level the majority of adults reach, whereby they begin to internalise the morals and beliefs of trusted and valued role models;
* The Postconventional level, which is only reached by a few adults who achieve formal operational thought. They understand the need for rules, but are likely to act on their own conscience instead of following societal laws.
This theory could explain why there are cultural differences in opinions towards crime, as people’s desire for leadership figures could ultimately lead to a whole culture following the values of a single or group of individuals, leading to different views on criminality. This theory can also be used to explain the actions of young offenders, as children in a subculture will often look up to a peer, and if that person is rebellious and criminal their actions will influence those around them to be criminal as well.
However, Kohlberg has received a large amount of criticism for his work, as other psychologists and sociologists believe that his ideas are too Westernised, and therefore do not apply to the world’s population as a whole.
Running almost parallel to Kohlberg’s work is Bandura’s belief in the theory of social learning. Using modelling he showed that children could very easily be influenced by the adults in their environment. Bandura’s models carried out violent actions in a nursery school. For example a model would attack a Bobo clown doll with a hammer and shout abuse at it in front of a group of 3 to 5 year old children. The children would later be observed carrying out similar attacks on the doll. This could also go a long way towards explaining where attitudes towards crime come from in the first place. If strangers can influence children towards violent play, it is highly conceivable that such behaviour from the child’s parents could have a much stronger effect.
Raine’s physiological study into brain formation in murderers discovered that in the majority of cases the prefrontal cortex, used to control impulsive behaviour, was damaged. There is clearly a correlation between damaged prefrontal lobes and murderous behaviour in the subjects used. However, this theory doesn’t explain “organised” murder, and cannot be used as an explanation of crime as a whole.
Rushton’s theories also rely on genetics to explain criminal behaviour, but he based his findings on the grounds of ethnicity. His theory is based on the fact that ethnic minorities are largely over-represented in our prison system, with 7% of the UK’s population, and 18% of the prison system being from ethnic minorities. There are two theories for this: firstly that black people are more criminally disposed than white people, because of their culture or genetic makeup, and secondly that the UK’s justice system is institutionally racist.
More important than defining crime however, is discovering the causes of crime. It is believed by many psychologists that crime is situational, for example people from poorer areas are seemingly more likely to commit crimes. However, because of negative stereotyping like this police activity in poorer areas is higher, leading to more arrests, whereas middle class white collar criminals who live in affluent areas are less likely to be arrested. This would suggest that crime is innate, and that criminally minded people are merely taking advantage of whatever background and resources are available to them.
Crime is as old as society, and “criminal” actions must have been carried out before laws were developed, or else there would be no need for rules. This also leads to the suggestion that crime is innate. However, definitions of crime differ from culture to culture and country to country, so to claim that crime is innate is difficult, as there is no clear definition.