Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Victimless Deviance: Toward a Classification of Opposition Justifications

Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Victimless Deviance: Toward a Classification of Opposition Justifications

Article excerpt

Abstract: Attitudes toward victimless deviance, predominantly drug use and various sexual behaviors, are explored using data from forty-nine semi-structured in-depth interviews with participants from various social and cultural backgrounds. The central question addressed is why people oppose these behaviors. The study explores perceptions of the nature and the consequences of these behaviors and the normative principles based on which people form opinions of opposition. The results support that opposition to victimless deviance is structured based on three normative principles: the libertarian principle (opposing harm to others), the paternalistic principle (opposing harm to self), and the moralistic principle (opposing harmless wrongdoing). Arguments justifying these oppositions are presented in a classification of opposition justifications. Particular emphasis is given to moralistic oppositions.

Keywords: crime seriousness, victimless deviance, drug use, sexual deviance, libertarianism, paternalism, moralism, harm to others, harm to self, harmless wrongdoing


Since its conception, victimless crime, and more inclusively, victimless deviance, has been a controversial issue in normative philosophy and criminal law. Various theses and arguments have emerged in an attempt to resolve a fundamental question regarding the limits of the law and more broadly social norms: should society control, through prohibition or other means, behaviors that do not harm others?1 The difficulty of this question is reflected in the debates on prohibition of victimless behaviors. Serious disagreements remain regarding "conflict crimes" or mala prohibita, i.e., criminalized behaviors that according to a substantial proportion of the population should be decriminalized. Different views regarding this matter are supported by arguments based on a number of distinct ideological orientations and on a spectrum of perceptions of the nature and consequences of the behaviors in question. In this respect, criminological research has not investigated victimless crime to a satisfactory degree. For example, why are people expected to "just say no" to drugs (both as potential users and as opinion holders)? Is it because of the perceived harmful consequences of drug use, and if so, what are these consequences? Or is it because using drugs is "just wrong"? And then, what does this mean?

This study presents elements of the debate on the control of victimless behaviors at the level of individual opinion. It attempts to classify opposition justifications, i.e., arguments used to justify the disapproval of these behaviors. The research question addressed is why do people oppose victimless deviance such as drug use, sexual deviance, gambling, and other similar behaviors. The question focuses on the thinking involved in forming an opinion. The study does not address the etiology of opinion formation in the usual sense (i.e., identification of psychological and social correlates of attitudes).


Criminological research on deviance perceptions has predominantly dealt with the measurement of perceived crime seriousness. It has shown that the perceived seriousness of a deviant act is predominantly a function of its perceived consequences. In surveys of perceived seriousness, acts causing physical harm are invariably rated as the most serious, followed by acts causing property loss or property damage, while victimless crimes are generally rated as the least serious (Sellin and Wolfgang 1964; Rossi et al. 1974; Rossi and Henry 1980; McCleary et al. 1981; Cullen, Link, and Polanzi 1982; Blum-West 1985; Wolfgang et al. 1985; Warr 1989).2 In addition, victimless behaviors tend to produce more disagreement than agreement with respect to seriousness perceptions (Newman 1976; Evans and Scott 1984; Miethe 1984; Carlson and Williams 1993). In the absence of victimizing consequences, the perceived seriousness of victimless crimes depends predominantly on perceived immorality (Newman 1976; Evans and Scott 1984). …

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