Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

A Look Inward: Blurring the Moral Line between the Wealthy Professional and the Typical Criminal

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

A Look Inward: Blurring the Moral Line between the Wealthy Professional and the Typical Criminal

Article excerpt

You use my own words against me.

--Ebenezer Scrooge (1)

This Note is about the moral judgments people make. Many of the most educated and privileged members of society--students and professionals--see a morally good person in the mirror but see a very different and immoral person when looking at someone who sells drugs or drives drunk. This Note suggests that they should take another look. Specifically, it argues that the characteristic spending and maintenance of excessive wealth by the educated and privileged is the moral equivalent of a number of criminal offenses.

To elaborate, certain crimes--such as manslaughter, drug distribution, and impaired driving--are morally premised on the harms associated with the prohibited behavior. The causal link between the behavior and its harms, however, can be quite indirect. Also, purposive action directly related to these harms is not required, nor is such specific intent typical. It is enough that the actor knew or should have known about the risks she was imposing and acted nonetheless. This decision to act is understood to result from an overly selfish focus on personal benefit, and this selfishness is partly why such actions are considered blameworthy. At the same time, a small percentage of the world's population maintains exclusive control over vast amounts of wealth and resources, while millions become sick and die due to a lack of basic goods. Billions more face constant struggles due to poverty. Individual choices to maintain excess wealth are indirect but very real causes of these harms. Wealthy individuals also make knowing and selfish choices to maintain resource control in spite of these harms. Despite these notable similarities to recognized criminal offenses, however, such economic behavior is entirely legal and rarely condemned.

Thus, society holds criminal and immoral certain knowing and selfish choices that indirectly cause harm but not others. This Note examines this inconsistency and considers the strongest counterarguments to the analogy between such criminal and economic behavior. But it also hopes to convince even those who find fault with the analogy that they ought to be far more concerned with their own spending and saving than most people are today. Thus, this Note is not about the appropriate economic or justice system; it is about individual choices and responsibilities. Nor is it about demonizing the wealthy or the criminal; it is about seeing in each of us a person who is capable of being better.


A. Intent and Selfishness

Many crimes have only a "soft intent" requirement. People who commit these crimes do not act with the purpose of subjecting others to the harms caused by their actions. They are held morally and legally culpable, however, because they are or should be aware of the consequences and act nonetheless. For example, manslaughter is often explicitly set as a soft-intent crime: the only state of mind required is a level of negligence. (2) Negligence does not stem from any specific intent to cause harm, but rather involves a "fail[ure] to bring to bear one's faculties to perceive the risks that one is taking."(3) The negligence can often be implied, as from drinking alcohol and driving before killing someone in a car crash: (4) "Because driving requires care and diligence to avoid injury to others and intoxication impairs such care and diligence, the drunk driver should have made the decision not to drive." (5)

The intent, as related to the harm, is just as "soft" for drug and impaired driving offenses. Drug dealers and intoxicated drivers choose to act in spite of the risks associated with their behavior, but not because they desire to impose these harms on others. (6) Driving under the influence, of course, is identical to vehicular manslaughter, minus the actual harm: "[The drunk driver] risked great harm by his conduct, even if he intended none at all. …

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