Most people are conditioned to follow the law by their parents and educational institutions. Consequently, for the majority of people the concept that laws must be followed is developed from an early age. However, in spite of this there are wide variations in the degree to which people actually do comply with the law.
It is commonly suggested that people obey the law because they think that not obeying it would be harmful to society. The logical opposite of this is that those who break the law do not consider their actions to be harmful to society. However, it is hard to see how a murderer can think that the act of murder does not harm society. It is more accurate to suggest that these people do not care whether or not their act harms society. Other people may believe that their ‘criminal’ act may actually benefit society as it rids society of some perceived ‘menace’.
Social and economic factors
The majority of people recognise that it is in their own best interests to preserve society. They benefit materially from society and also gain some degree of safety by being a member of it. However, people who are disadvantaged perceive fewer reasons to obey the laws that hold our society together. For example, someone who is poorly educated or who has suffered family breakdown or physical abuse may see society as being the cause of their problems and therefore feel no desire to obey the laws established for its protection.
One of the more controversial theories about the cause of criminal activities is based on the concept that certain genetic differences may result in criminal behaviour.
This is not an entirely new concept—in the nineteenth century it was believed that the shape of the skull and the size of the nose could determine a criminal.
Some studies have shown that certain genetic characteristics may result in a greater chance that the person will engage in criminal activity. However, other studies have shown no link between genetic make-up and criminality. The most that can be said is that it is possible that some people commit more crimes than others because of their genetic make-up. Other factors are, however, much more important.
The theory of differential association
A sense of moral duty is one of the main reasons for people obeying laws.
Most people think that committing a crime is immoral. However, a person’s morals are a product of their environment. If a person has lived in an environment where there is no respect for law and where criminal behaviour is normal, their moral views are likely to
reflect this. Therefore, the theory of differential association can be summed up as stating that a person who is exposed to an environment in which criminal behaviour is normal is more likely to become a criminal. This is particularly so for children whose parents have shown no regard for the law. It is often suggested that if a child is brought up in a home where criminal activity is common the child is more likely to engage in criminal activities.
Other theories that have emerged from differential association include the 'anomie theory', which states that a person who has become alienated by society is more likely to disregard the laws of that society. The concept of subcultures has also emerged. A subculture is a culture that exists within a wider society, but which has different values and morals from the mainstream (gang culture is an example of this). A member of the subculture is expected to comply with its values and norms rather than with mainstream laws.
There have always been groups in any society who have challenged the authority of the government and, by extension, the laws of that government. This may take the form of peaceful demonstration, but in extreme cases it can lead to violence, such as terrorist actions, violent demonstrations and assassination. For example, a series of violent protests, which saw thousands of cars torched, took place among the migrant population of France in 2005. Some migrant leaders argued that their people were so frustrated with racism and disadvantage that violent protest was the only way to have their concerns dealt with. Sometimes, politically motivated criminal activity may be considered justifiable (e.g. Nelson Mandela was declared a criminal and sentenced to prison for his actions against the racist apartheid government of South Africa).
Self-interest and greed
Our society has become increasingly materialistic and consumer-driven. As a result it is now obvious that many criminals are simply motivated by greed—some people take things just because they desire them. The common belief is that most thieves are poor and unemployed, but the majority of white-collar crimes are motivated by greed and self-interest.