Hate Crimes Legislation Unmasks Blind Justice


The Trayvon Martin killing has been characterized by many as a “hate crime.” Hate crimes are said to be those in which a criminal’s actions are motivated by factors such as racial, religious, or gender prejudices. If convicted of a hate crime, Trayvon Martin’s alleged killer George Zimmerman would face a harsher sentence for his supposed racially prejudiced crime.

Of course we should all be opposed to racial prejudice, especially to crimes committed on the basis of such prejudice. But are such crimes worse than wrongdoings committed from some other malicious motive? Almost all crimes are motivated by disregard for the rights of others, so is there anything to justify punishing certain crimes as “hateful?”

Some people are racially prejudiced based upon certain ideas they hold toward members of a particular group. Hate crime laws, therefore, are in effect levied against ideas that the government deems undesirable. But should the state be involved in promoting or punishing certain ideological views?

The government exists to protect individual rights by outlawing the use of force against others. In cases where force is used, the justice system exists to punish and deter crimes. Only the use of physical force by one person against another should be punished as a crime. For instance, assault is punishable because it involves one person physically harming another. And by punishing people who commit assault, the court deters future assaults.

Merely thinking prejudiced thoughts about someone before harming him does not increase the degree of force itself. For example, three people could all believe that homosexuality is a sin. The first keeps the idea to himself. The second calls every gay man he finds a derogatory name. But the third person assaults a gay man. Each of these three has the same idea, but each acts on it differently, and only one physically harms another person. Ideas do not pose a threat to society; what threatens society is how people choose to act on their ideas.

It is worth noting that racist, sexist, or other prejudicial motives can be used to prove a suspect’s guilt in a criminal investigation. For example, in 2009, Allen Andrade was the first to be convicted of a hate crime against a transgendered person. The court ruled that the murderer targeted his victim because she was transgendered, which also elevated the murder to “hate crime” status. While it is correct for the court to cite Andrade’s anti-transgender beliefs to prove that he had a motive to commit the crime, he should not be punished more heavily for having these motivations. In doing so, the court punishes the idea, not the use of force.

Laws against “hate crimes” also undermine objective law. Neither the enactment nor the enforcement of laws should be based on politicians’ politically-correct whims about what is socially undesirable. For example, if an extreme sect of Christianity took over Congress and enacted harsher than usual punishments for crimes committed against a preacher, the rule of law would be undermined. As Aristotle said, we should be governed by the rule of law, not the whims of men.

By describing in plain language which crimes receive which punishments, and by punishing criminals in proportion to the crimes they commit, objective law prevents the initiation of physical force by racists and non-racists alike. Objective law promotes impartiality in the judicial system, which ensures that criminals will be properly punished for their crimes. We do not want a judge to give a criminal a harsher sentence because the judge disagreed with the criminal’s ideological motivations. For instance, we do not want Christian judges to more harshly punish atheist extremists who set fire to churches than Christian arsonists who burn abortion clinics. Such a system unfairly punishes atheists more harshly than Christians and undermines the notion that all men are equal under the law.

It is wrong for the government to outlaw ideas, for an idea by itself poses no threat to anyone. Freedom of speech rests on the same foundation. Someone can openly oppose all forms of government. He can even preach his anarchist ideas as much as he likes. However, he cannot be prosecuted unless he acts on them in a way that harms others, say by bombing a government building. In this case the bombing is the punishable crime, not the anarchist ideas that motivated it. Ideas, no matter how abhorrent, should not be censored. Those who support freedom of speech, even in the case of objectionable ideas, should not support hate crime legislation. Such legislation outlaws these ideas, and in doing so threatens freedom of speech.

Crimes that qualify as “hate crimes” are terrible and we are right to feel outraged when we learn of them, but classifying them as “hate crimes” is not the answer. Instead, we should morally condemn such crimes while simultaneously promoting a system of clearly-defined laws that punish those who engage in physical coercion.

Image courtesy Flickr user mira66.

Posted by on April 30, 2012. Filed under Government & Law, Spring 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Zemocasu

    I think that’s supposed to be “arsonist christian” instead of “arsonist athiest”

  • Martin

    impartiality surely is an important aspect of a fair judical mechanisms and there is much I agree with your argument. Still, that “hate” ads to the crime´s wrondoing, so to speak, could mean, that hate is mentally represented as a morally wrong thing by itself and thus enters into the judgement of our intuitive “moral sense” that leads us to want (or belive) that a greater punishemt is deserved and needed (or more compensation  is needed to the victinm, if thats possible to achieve). And this may make jurors´ explicit judgements on this issue more susceptible to maintain and decide upon. So this is a descriptive point of view (how the psychology maght work). 

    From the normaltive point of view which you espause on the issue of hate contributing to the harshness of a sentence and viewing this as a not an impartial justice procedure, I would say, that hate (form racial, religious or sex reasons) per se can and also think should be considered morally wrong and be subject to compensating the victim, since I would argue that there really is a victim who suffers harm in the form of degradation and inferiority which highly contributes to the discimination in action and behavior to other humans on irrelevant grounds (I believe that any reasonable person these days should not have a problem to accespt this preposition). So I would argue that it is OK to compensate the victims of hate crimes, even if direct physical harm has been done (although psychological harm sould be considred very real, especially in repeated episodes)…and in this way it can also promote a deterrent function of such behavior (thus also contributing to reducing the harms done to victims). That people in power can and also have the greatest oportunity to exploit the government system for their purposes is not specific only to the penal system, but is done in many other aspects of regulating the life of people living in a modern society (all kinds of economic and social behaviors). Also, as you also recognize, the motives of humans in harming or violating the rights of others are heavilly considered in the judgement of the scale of wrong done to someone and resulting punishment or compensation (e.g. acts classified as accidents with no intention to harm or kill the other and acts classified as purposefull desire to hamr or kill an innocent human being – as you write, crimes should be proportional to the harm done or seriousness of a crime. Since one can argue that hate crime is more serious that an accidental crime, it also should be punished more (adding to it even the deterence function).

    And thanks for the nice analysis of yours.