There can be no discussion of “”crime”” and “”criminals”” without investigating the meaning of the words. A large majority of men, even among the educated, speak of a “”criminal”” as if the word had a clear meaning and as if men were divided by a plain and distinct line into the criminal and the virtuous. As a matter of fact, there is no such division, and from the nature of things, there never can be such a line.
Strictly speaking, a crime is an act forbidden by the law of the land, and one which is considered sufficiently serious to warrant providing penalties for its commission. It does not necessarily follow that this act is either good or bad; the punishment follows for the violation of the law and not necessarily for any moral transgression. No doubt most of the things forbidden by the penal code are such as are injurious to the organized society of the time and place, and are usually of such a character as for a long period of time, and in most countries, have been classed as criminal. But even then it does not always follow that the violator of the law is not a person of higher type than the majority who are directly and indirectly responsible for the law.
It is apparent that something is not necessarily bad because it is forbidden by the law. Legislators are forever repealing and abolishing criminal statutes, and organized society is constantly ignoring laws, until they fall into disuse and die. The laws against witchcraft, the long line of “”blue laws,”” the laws affecting religious beliefs and many social customs, are well-known examples of legal and innocent acts which legislatures and courts have once made criminal. Not only are criminal statutes always dying by repeal or repeated violation, but every time a legislature meets, it changes penalties for existing crimes and makes criminal certain acts that were not forbidden before.
In this uncertainty as to the basis of good and bad conduct, many appeal to “”conscience”” as the infallible guide. What is conscience? It has been often said that some divine power implanted conscience in every human being. There is no doubt that all men of any mentality have what is called a conscience; that is, a feeling that certain things are right, and certain other things are wrong. This conscience does not affect all the actions of life, but probably the ones which to them are the most important. It varies, however, with the individual. What reason has the world to believe that conscience is a correct guide to right and wrong?
The origin of conscience is easily understood. One’s conscience is formed as his habits are formed – by the time and place in which he lives; it grows with his teachings, his habits and beliefs. With most people it takes on the color of the community where they live. With some people the eating of pork would hurt their conscience; with others the eating of any meat; with some the eating of meat on Friday, and with others the playing of any game of chance for money, or the playing of any game on Sunday, or the drinking of intoxicating liquors. Conscience is purely a matter of environment, education and temperament, and is no more infallible than any habit or belief. Whether one should always follow his own conscience is another question, and cannot be confounded with the question as to whether conscience is an infallible guide to conduct.
Adapted from Crime: Its Cause and Treatment by Clarence Darrow, 2004
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