Recent news stories have brought hate crimes into the national spotlight. A hate crime is defined in terms of the criminal’s motivations. Put in general terms, a hate crime occurs when the criminal targets someone because of his/her membership in a specific group. Typically, the group is defined in terms of race, religion, sexuality, nationality, age, gender, political affiliation or other such factor. While the name seems to suggest that hate is the defining factor, committing a crime that is motivated by hate is not a sufficient condition for a hate crime. For example, if Bill (a Caucasian) beats Sam (also a Caucasian) to death with a tire iron over the course of several hours because he hates Sam for being successful, then no hate crime has been committed. If Bill throws a beer can at Juan (a Hispanic) while yelling a racist slogan about Juan’s ethnicity, then he has (potentially) committed a hate crime.
The importance of defining something as a hate crime is that it typically changes the legal seriousness of the action. For example, suppose that Alice and Bill commit crimes that are otherwise the same. If Bill commits a hate crime and Alice does not, then Bill will typically receive a more severe punishment than Alice. This raises important questions about the justification of such disparity.
On one hand, there do seem to be good grounds for punishing hate crimes more severely. One reasonable justification can be found in the fact that motive is a relevant factor in assessing a crime. As an obvious example, if Alice kills Jane it makes a great difference whether she killed Jane to protect herself from a senseless attack or because she was angry about Jane sleeping with her husband. Another reasonable justification can be found in the fact that punishment is often intended to bring about a social good. Many of the relevant groups, such as those based on race, sexual orientation or gender, have often been given far less protection in the past. For example, in the United States African Americans were often subject to terrible crimes (such as lynching) and the wrongdoers were not punished. By having special punishments for crimes against members of such groups, a message is sent that such evil will no longer be tolerated.
It might be objected that the law should simply be enforced and that the special punishment is unjustified because punishments should match the crime. It can be replied that “over-punishment” is needed to make sure that the message is clear and also to make it more likely that the deterrence will be effective. After all, one might argue, the more severe the punishment, the greater the deterrence value.
On the other hand, there seem to be grounds for questioning the disparity. One thing worth considering is that while motive is an important factor in assessing a crime, there seem to be cases in which the distinction would not warrant a different punishment. For example, if Alice kills Jane because she hates Jane for being so pretty, then Alice has clearly done something very wrong and should be punished for murder. But, suppose that Alice kills Jane because she hates her for being Hispanic. Morally, the cases seem the same. Both involve murder that is motivated by hatred. Further, the situations involve factors that are accidental in the philosophical sense: Alice did not choose to be born pretty nor did she choose to be born Hispanic. In both cases, Alice is killed because Jane hates a quality about Alice that clearly does not warrant such hatred. In either case, Alice is just as dead and the motive is hatred. From a moral standpoint, there would be no reasonable justification for punishing Jane more in one case than in the other-the harm and the motives are morally equal.
It might be objected that the hate crime is worse. After all, if Jane killed Alice for being Hispanic, then Jane is, in a way, attacking all Hispanics. This makes the crime worse. The obvious reply is that if Jane killed Alice because she hates pretty people, then she would be attacking all pretty people. Thus the crimes would be on par.
It might be further objected that perhaps hate crimes should be defined so that any crime based on group membership would be a hate crime. The obvious problem with this is that everyone belongs to many groups, so it would seem that all crimes would be hate crimes. Naturally, it could be said that the motivation has to be based on the person being part of a group, so that a crime aimed at an individual for other reasons would not be a hate crime. For example, if Jan stabbed Carl because she wanted to steal his wallet, that would not be a hate crime (unless, of course, it is a hate crime directed against people who have wallets). If she stabbed him for being a transsexual, then it would be a hate crime.
Naturally, in either case Carl would still be stabbed and presumably the motive would not be his main worry. Of course, this then again raises the question about whether the motive in such cases would be a relevant difference. From the standpoint of Carl, it does not seem to be a relevant difference-what seems to matter is that he was stabbed by a person who was acting from an evil intent in both cases. Thus, it does seem that while the motive can be a relevant factor in assessing a crime, the distinction between crimes committed from hate and crimes committed out of other evil motivations does not seem relevant in assessing the just punishment.
A second factor worth considering is that punishing people more severely in order to send a message seems unjust. If punishing people more for committing a hate crime is intended to deter hate crimes, the same logic should apply across the board. If it is justified in the case of hate crimes, then it would also be justified in the case of other crimes. Unless, of course, it is somehow less important to prevent crimes then it is to prevent hate crimes. In this case, the disparity would be justified. However, this does not seem to be a justifiable position. One point well worth making is that hate crimes are often more brutal and vicious than “regular” crimes. In such cases they should be punished more severely. This is not because they are hate crimes, but because they would be worse crimes regardless of the motive of the evildoer(s).