Alleged Repercussions and the Law

Sorry, I’m concocting a new phrase, since I can’t think of one that accurately, easily and in shorthand depicts a phenomenon I want to address. The new phrase is “Leads To-ism.” This is meant to refer to a mode of thinking that is far too powerful and very harmful. It is the view that if X leads to Y, and Y is properly illegal, then not only should Y continue to remain against the law, but so, now, should X be legally prohibited.

There are numerous examples that illustrate this way of thinking. Drinking alcohol leads to drunken driving. The latter is properly banned, since it constitutes a threat against innocent motorists and pedestrians; therefore, the prohibition of alcohol is justified.

Pornography leads to rape. The latter is properly banned, since it is a per se rights violation; therefore, the prohibition of dirty pictures and licentious stories would be justified.

Hate speech leads to assault and battery, and even murder. There is no doubt that assault and battery, and murder and other such grievous crimes are properly banned. Therefore, hate speech should also be prohibited by law.

Gambling leads to family breakup and poverty. Impoverishment and broken families are obviously problematic. They, in turn, lead to other types of social disarray, such as crime, homelessness and imprisonment. Therefore, gambling should be made illegal.

It would be possible to almost endlessly extend these examples. We might include overeating, not studying, not listening to your parents, not showing respect to elders, etc., etc.

So, is it justified in prohibiting by law acts that are not themselves per se rights violations, on the ground that they can and sometimes, do, lead to real crimes?

One problem with this “Leads To-ism” legal philosophy is that a civilized society should only ban acts that are clear rights violations. Practically anything can “lead to” anything else, and if we continue too far down that slippery slope, we will pretty much prohibit everything.

Another difficulty is that there are all sorts of reductio ad absurdums that can be launched against this theory of criminality. We have recently witnessed, in the slap of Chris Rock by Will Smith, that jokes can lead to assault and battery. Surely, we do not want to legally prohibit all such witticisms. We do not even want to ban jokes in poor taste, one, because then comedians wouldn’t engage in any humor lest they offend someone, and two, because this is an entirely subjective matter, and “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

Another example is soccer games, particularly in Europe, but elsewhere as well. There have been unfortunate incidents in which, at the end of a game, and sometimes in the middle of it, riots take place, with loss of life. Yet, it would be the rare person who on the basis of occurrences such as these would want to ban such sporting events.

Stories in the bible lead to riots. Movies, plays, shows, have had similar results, especially those depicting violence, or gangs. Fights have been known to break out after Super Bowls in football, the World Series in baseball and tournaments put on by the National Basketball Association. Even children’s games are not invulnerable to such goings on (although all too often it is the parents who indulge, not the kids).

Another difficulty with Leads To-ism is that it constitutes a rejection of free will. Based on this viewpoint, people are not free to refrain from criminal behavior when presented with preliminary occurrences that “lead to” it. Yet, the very opposite is true. Very few drunkards get behind the wheel. Most soccer game attendees do not riot. Hardly any who indulge in pornography engage in rape. If everyone who ever expressed a hateful thought carried through with violence, only saints would be immune. X may indeed “lead to” Y for some people, but hardly all. Therefore, it is not as if “leading to” is any guarantee of the criminal behavior we all rightly condemn. We must sharply distinguish between causality and “leading to.” Causality is far from always in operation.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.