Victimless crime

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A victimless crime is an action which is forbidden by law, yet does not hurt another person.

Examples include:

  • riding a motorcycle without a helmet
  • committing suicide

Advocates for reform of "victimless crime" statutes often argue that people ought to be allowed to do whatever they wish, except for those cases in which it can be proven that their act is likely to violate the rights of another person.

Perversely, this point of view has been embraced by slave-owners, both in the English-speaking West (which abolished slavery in the nineteenth century) and in present-day Africa (e.g., the Sudan).

A slave, while regarded as belonging to the same species as a normal person, enjoys the legal status of "property" rather than "humanity". As such, it is no violation of his "rights" to whip him, mutilate him, rape him, etc. After all, may not a property owner do what he wishes with his own property? (See property rights.)

A similar argument, often tacit, is made to justify "abortion on demand". The fetus (q.v.) is regarded as being composed of "human tissue" yet is not regarded as being a "human being". Not until it reaches a certain stage (such as being completely born) does it attain the legal status of humanity. Even then, in some jurisdictions it may be killed for various reasons:

The abolitionist movement stressed the essential humanity of slaves. Notable in this context was Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin which sought to prove via literature that a black person could have just as strong moral feelings as a white person. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn did similar duty, though not so blatantly - read the scene where Jim takes Huck to task for faking his death after a rainstorm. The worry Jim went through, on Huck's behalf.

It has been argued that suicide should not be against the law, or taking drugs. Sometimes this view holds that if the death or the drug-induced incapacity of a person works to the detriment of others (such as close family members, or dependents), then the act should still be a crime - because it affects others adversely. Oftentimes this view excuses an "exit" from life entirely, or from one's responsibilities, provided the act causes no immediate, direct harm.

That is, if a subway motorman commits suicide while on duty, and this lets the train crash and injures or kills others, then such an act should be made illegal. Ironically, there would be no way to enforce the law; you can't punish the dead. Alternately, the act might not be considered suicide per se, but dereliction of duty.

If a person takes drugs (like cocaine or pot) - but does not do any direct harm to another, it is often argued that this "crime" has no victim and thus should be legalized. Even driving a car while high should not be a crime, these advocates argue - unless it can be shown that the vehicle operator's skills were impaired to the detriment of others. Some states in America have legislated blood alcohol levels beyond which a person is considered to be "driving drunk" (or driving while impaired). The controversy here is between those saying that a risk of harm is legally equivalent to harm itself.

As for riding without a helmet or driving without seat belts, most of the United States have managed to retain laws forbidding this, mostly on the grounds that the motorcycle injuries cost the entire society. This is much resented among certain segments of the motorcycle-riding public - particular that segment which regards riding a motorcycle as an expression of personal freedom, as opposed to riding around in a "cage" (slang expression for car).

There are challenges with defining "victimless crime" in any society with public benefits, for example widely available public health. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet exposes the rider to unacceptably high risk of being hurt in an accident. Such an accident might very well cause brain damage, and society is then hit with the cost of supporting that individual for long periods at great expense. Is this a "victimless crime"? No, because all of society suffers - as well as the unfortunate motorcycle rider.

Compare: consensual crime

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