If I remember correctly, it was in the late 1960s that the expression “victimless crime” gained widespread currency. It was a popular expression among persons who held that it’s absurd to punish people who commit “crimes” that do no harm to anybody except, perhaps, to people who voluntarily participate in these “criminal” activities.
Included among these so-called victimless crimes were drunkenness, use of (or selling of) marijuana and other recreational drugs, prostitution, gay sex, soliciting for sex, and abortion. That abortion was victimless was (and still is) a highly dubious proposition, since its purpose is to kill a growing-but-unborn baby.
But so are some of these other activities far from victimless. You can honestly think this only if you’ve never had any acquaintance with the families of alcoholics or drug addicts or girls who have fallen into prostitution. There is no way to measure the misery experienced by persons who have a loved one who is enslaved by one or more of these awful vices – and it often happens that such persons are enslaved by more than just one.
Not many pains are worse than the pain of witnessing a person you truly love ruin his or her life day by day, hour by hour. This is one of the torments that Dante forgot to include in his Inferno. What more exquisite agony could Satan have devised?
This campaign against so-called victimless crimes was part of a much larger campaign in favor of personal liberty. Freedom was a good thing, wasn’t it? It said so in the Declaration of Independence. And America was the leader of the “free world,” wasn’t it? And we Americans, as opposed to those dreadful Communists, were believers in free markets, weren’t we? What could be more American than to be a champion of freedom? The more the better.
There were many kinds of personal freedom that burst upon the American scene in the 1960s. Perhaps the most sensational of these was sexual freedom, which soon subdivided into many branches.
First was the freedom to engage in premarital sex. This was a great favorite among college students, though it soon trickled down to high school students and percolated up to college graduates.
Then, quite logically, came the freedom of young men and young women to cohabit while unmarried.
Then came the freedom to have abortions – after all, accidents were bound to happen (around a million a year, give or take), and girls had to be able to do something about these accidents.
Next came the freedom to practice homosexuality. If straights were free to fool around, how, in fairness, could that freedom be denied to gays and lesbians? All this was the great sexual revolution.
Today, more than a half-century later, the revolution rolls on. Its latest accomplishment is to have persuaded half the nation of the nobility of that absurd thing, transgenderism. Before the sexual revolution arrives at its terminus ad quem, it will have to persuade the nation – or at least its “right-thinking” half – of the nobility of polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality.
But sexual freedom wasn’t the only kind of freedom let loose in the 1960s. There was also the freedom to use drugs. For decades marijuana had pretty much been confined to the “cool” world of jazz musicians. And then one fine day it was everywhere; a million places, especially places where young persons gathered, were “cool” and even “super-cool.”
We were told, and are still being told today, that marijuana is quite harmless and that it is not a “gateway” drug – even though, unless you first pass through the marijuana gate, you probably won’t advance to the use of things like cocaine and heroin and fentanyl.
Thanks to criminal producers south of the border and criminal distributors in the United States, we currently have more than 100,000 overdose deaths per annum, mostly among young people who, if they had never “experimented” with marijuana, might have lived long and useful lives. But that’s okay, because these are victimless crimes.
The notion that nothing should be counted as a crime unless it produces a victim who suffers some tangible and obvious harm, e.g., a broken leg or a hijacked auto, has long ago passed from being a legal desideratum to being a moral principle.
It’s widely held today in America that all behavior is morally permissible provided it does no tangible and obvious harm to a non-consenting other. We may call this the theory of moral liberalism.
The four great virtues of the classical world were wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation; moral liberalism does away with all of these but justice. The three great virtues of Christianity are faith, hope, and charity; and Christianity’s three great evangelical counsels are poverty, chastity, and obedience. Moral liberalism does away with all six of these.
For the past 3,000 years or so, the Western world – the world of Rome and Athens and Jerusalem, not to mention Paris and London and New York – has been transforming its idea of moral goodness. This development has rested on the idea first clearly put forward by Socrates, that the best thing in the world is the human soul, from which it follows that the best work in the world is the “care of soul,” which is done by developing its wisdom and virtue.
Or as Keats put it, our world is a “vale of soul-making.”
Here in America, we – or rather, our predecessors – once understood this, and so these earlier Americans paid tremendous honor to such well-developed souls as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Today, Americans – at least the most influential among us, those moralists who are dominant in journalism, at our great universities, and in the entertainment industry – have “improved” the moral life by simplifying it, by reducing it to a single commandment: “Do whatever you like. Just do no obvious harm to non-consenting others.”
In the last half-century or so we have gone through what may be called an anti-Socratic revolution. The result? Just look around you.
*Image: Leda and the Swan by Jean-Jacques Feuchère, ca. 1840–50 [The MET, New York]
You may also enjoy:
James Matthew Wilson’s A Liberal Christian Feast of Sentiments
Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D.’s About Our Epidemic of Sexual Aggression