How Values are Linked to Crime

Values are linked to crime in the sense that values are nothing more than society’s judgment of what is “good” and what is “evil.” Whoever violates society’s values is punished in some way. If that violation is considered egregiously harmful to society, (or a serious breach of society’s tolerance), the violator is labeled a “criminal.”

Let’s break down the notion of “values” further and connect values to the concept of what is generally accepted as “crime.” Values can be categorized into ethical, moral, political or religious beliefs of an individual, which are typically gained through the process of what is called “socialization.” We learn values as children, accept and practice them, and they become the controls that keep us functioning with the approval of our community.

Criminal behavior, then, results when someone violates ethical or moral values (steals, murders, etc.) or perhaps political values (fails to pay taxes). In our “modern” or “rational” view, criminal breaches of society’s values tend to fall into the ethnical, moral and political categories, and to a lesser extent, religious-based values.

In times past, though, societies tended to define criminal activity on a different set of values. Consider the Spanish Inquisition, when “heretics” were “put to the test” and burnt at the stake for violating the religious values of the time. Then there was the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, when just being accused of “crimes against the revolution” normally resulted in decapitation.

The Inquisition and the Terror illustrate extreme examples of defining crime through a prism of religious or revolutionary fervor. As society’s attitudes towards morality or proper political expression have evolved so has the concept of what is a crime. Prime examples of the foregoing would be abortion or homosexual behavior, both of which were illegal before our values changed.

Crimes are likewise linked to values in a sort of reverse manner. Consider the values of so-called “subcultures.” The initiation rite of a young street gang member who must commit a crime to be accepted by his peers is an example of valuing the commission of a crime. The values of the gang and the disapproval of the society it moves in are at obvious odds.

So society through its most prominent members (judges, police, politicians, religious leaders) typically makes the rules that coalesce into our belief systems that we adopt as values. Values, in turn, have associated penalties for violating them. To the extent that an individual operates outside these values (norms and controls), the individual is considered a “deviant” or a criminal. On the other hand, what was a crime 50 years ago, may be acceptable behavior today. It all depends on values.