When it comes to assessing what kind of behavior ought to be accepted, tolerated, or punished, I find it useful to consider the categories of behavior in a social context. Keep in mind that this ordering is mostly in the context of the greater discussion of state power and its moral use, as well as the difficult question of what “the good” actually is.
When it comes to undesirable behavior, that is behavior that the greater culture does not want or does not itself exercise, there are three categories: antisocial behavior, delinquent behavior, and deviant/degenerate behavior.
Antisocial behavior is that which specifically against others. Theft, rape, murder, assault, and vandalism fit into this category. No society can tolerate antisocial behavior and call itself moral, nor can a moral society be forced to tolerate antisocial behavior without great cost. Likewise, state power can be legitimately used to prosecute and punish those who engage in antisocial behavior. (people often say antisocial when they mean asocial – avoiding social interraction. This is the proper use)
Delinquent behavior is that which regards a failure to act according to one’s duty and responsibilities. This would include failing to pay one’s bills, failing to provide for one’s children, failing to report for military service, violating a contract, as well as the large host of negligent behaviors, such as drunk driving. Other, smaller legal infractions are delinquent, such as speeding or parking a car illegally. These behaviors negatively affect others through less direct means than antisocial behavior.
When a person fails to fulfill a contract, the other party is at a loss because the work (or payment) was anticipated and expected and is now absent. Parents have a specific responsibility to their children, and people engage in business with others under the assumption they will receive compensation for the goods they sell or produce.
Delinquent behavior can also cause “neighborhood effects” – those negative states created by behavior that ends up negatively affecting others. For instance, burning a pile of tires makes the neighborhood smell bad, harming all the residents in a small, but tangible way.
Negligent behavior harms, or potentially harms, others through failure to uphold one’s responsibilities, leaving others less than whole. An improperly made bonfire can light the neighbor’s house on fire. Failing to be attentive while driving and backing into someone’s mailbox is negligence.
Most of the questions regarding the mechanisms of the state’s domestic action focus on delinquent behavior. How do you assist a business in recovering funds owed? What is the best way to compensate others for neighborhood effects? When does negligence become so risky it crosses over into criminal behavior, like with drunk driving?
In America, we have an entire civil court system devoted to making parties whole, that is, correcting the results of delinquent behavior through compensation after-the-fact, what we call tort. We have other courts as well, such as traffic court, that operate at a lower standard than criminal courts and which deal primarily with things like fines and liens, not jail time. Imprisonment is usually only reserved for those who are on the extreme ends of delinquency.
Deviant behaviors are those behaviors that involve separation from the larger social order or refusal to adhere to social norms. Degenerate behaviors are those acts which are primarily against the self, and are thus concerned with a personal lack of virtue. This doesn’t mean they have no negative consequences for others, as these actions still occur within the social matrix and therefore will affect others, but that the primary consequence is for the individual, with secondary effects being much more diffuse.
Deviant behaviors are many and the inclusion of many behaviors is debatable, but generally, that which is deviant is that which goes against the social moors of the group and generally is against what the group considers the “good” to be, or the proper modes of action for an individual.
Examples include refusing to get vaccinated, dressing in a socially unacceptable manner, cohabitating before marriage, or refusing to go to church. Violation of these moors is dependent on the standards in play at the community, state, or national level. The consequences to others are generally going to be small, especially if the deviant behavior is isolated to a few individuals in a group.
Degenerate behaviors likewise are numerous, but they are generally those that involve risk or harm to self primarily. They degrade the quality of the individual and make the person a weaker member of the group.
Examples include drunkenness, philandering, gambling, and the host of sexually deviant behavior that isn’t specifically antisocial. All of these things are primarily self-abuses, but they do have impacts on others to various degrees, even if small.
The challenge of degenerate or deviant behavior is in deciding what should and should not be tolerated, at what level of organization the tolerance should occur, and to what degree. Something like adultery has immediate and significant impacts to the family, but a single instance has little impact on society. It’s only when the cumulative impact of adultery becomes visible to society that it starts to become a problem for the state.
Likewise, refusing to vaccinate your own children primarily risks them, but if enough people opt-out herd immunity decreases and the community can suffer outbreaks of disease, which has happened in the first world with diseases like Measles.
Indeed, most of the debates over the proper role of the state when it comes to regulating human behaviors occur when dealing with degenerate and delinquent behaviors, not antisocial behaviors. Virtually everyone can agree rapists should be punished (severely); it’s harder to get people on the same page for homosexuality or other non-standard but consensual sexual relationships.
Tolerating Degenerate behavior has the potential to reduce the quality of the culture at large, at least if the behavior spreads wide enough. If enough people refuse to procreate, the tribe dies; if most men refuse to create abundance, the tribe faces hunger. If men fail to cultivate their strength, the tribe will be conquered. If men abuse their bodies with alcohol and food, they die early, robbing the tribe of their skills, wisdom, and strength.
Cultivating virtue in the populace is very important, and thus it is the other side of the degeneracy/deviance conundrum.
How should we cultivate virtues in others? How do we reduce vices? How and to what degree do we tolerate degenerate behavior, and how do we deal with non-compliant people? Who is responsible for dealing with the unwanted behavior? Do we use the state, or just social means? Do we use the state to attempt to cultivate virtue, or should that be the job of cultural institutions such as churches, leaving the state to deal with criminal matters?
You have this dilemma with drug abuse. It’s primarily self-abusive, but has secondary effects. Drug addicts commit secondary crimes. They make poor decisions that cause harm to themselves and others. They may engage in risky behavior and produce unwanted children that become wards of charity or the state. They may neglect their children. They may spread their behavior to others.
There are great costs to using the state in a punitive fashion to combat drug use, and that cost, as many assess it now that we have prohibited drugs for a long time, is higher than if the behavior was tolerated, at least in some fashion. At the same time, not all drug users are addicts who produce negative secondary effects in a significant quantity. Some people are capable of using moderately or in a way that does little to no harm to others, as with most adults using alcohol.
In the future I’ll take a look at how these things are handled at what organizational level – family, local, state, nation, etc. – and provide some rationale for state action or restriction of the state.
The main purpose of this essay is to identify how, socially, we regard behavior from the absolutely intolerable to undesired, but tolerable.