Durkheim QotD: Economic Crises vs. Murder

In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim analyzes different types of crimes and how they reveal different forms of social organization. Durkheim argues that crime is identifiable by its punishment – understanding punishment gets at the essence of crime. Moreover, an act is criminal because it offends our collective consciousness, not the other way around. Durkheim argues that crimes don’t always correspond to any sort of harm to society, and even when two acts do both harm society, the punishments given to the different acts do not correspond to the amount of harm they cause society. One example he uses near the beginning of chapter two feels particularly relevant in the present moment:

In the penal law of most civilised peoples murder is universally regarded as the greatest of crimes. Yet an economic crisis, a crash on the stock market, even a bankruptcy, can disorganize the body social much more seriously than the isolated case of homicide. Assuredly murder is always an evil, but nothing proves that it is the greatest evil. What does one human being the less matter to society? Or one cell fewer in the organism? It is said that public safety would be endangered in the future if the act remained unpunished. But if we compare the degree of danger, however real it may be, to the penalty, there is a striking disproportion. (33)

On the failure to prosecute the movers and shakers behind the 2008 crisis, this 2011 NYT article may be relevant, as well as much of Matt Taibbi’s work.

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