A Middlesex University resource by Ginny Goudy
home page for social
science home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide home page

existential criminal

by Ginny Goudy

A Hollywood actress commands a fee of $3 million for a film role, yet is found guilty of stealing a $1600 Gucci dress. Kleptomaniac or thrill-seeker?

After years of domestic abuse, a woman pours petrol over her husband and sets him alight. Murder or "righteous slaughter"? (Katz, J. 1988, p.284)

By identifying the pivotal role played by emotional and sensual factors in the execution of a criminal event, American sociologist Jack Katz added a new dimension to the criminological debate. Investigation of the relationship between emotion and deviant behaviour has been largely unattended by criminologists, with many of the most influential perspectives focussing on the objective circumstances of the transgressor rather than his or her subjective experience. It is a curious omission: even the man on the Clapham omnibus is likely to consider anger, envy, pride or the sheer-thrill-of-it as motivation enough to commit crime.

Established theories of crime and deviance have evolved from the Enlightenment's obsessive focus on man's rationality, or lack of it see, for example, classical criminology, control theory, rational choice theory, even situational crime prevention theory; until recently, the literature has concentrated on man's reason, or focussed on background qualifications such as class, environment, gender and race at the expense of determining the role played by his emotional self. The majority of the debate has centred on the causes of crime, the consequences of crime and the control of crime but few insights have been offered into the forces that predominate at the moment of a crime's commission. "Thoughts and ideas appear....as the most important and potent aspect of the way men steer themselves. And the unconscious impulses, the whole field of drive and affect structures, remain more or less in the dark." (Elias, N. 1982, p.284)

Jack Katz argues that "inquiry should start with the foreground of crime, i.e. with a commitment to describe what always and uniquely occurs in the construction of different forms of deviant conduct." (Katz 2002 p25) His theory is that these foreground factors, the visceral aspects of committing crime, can be used to provide a rational, alternative explanation for deviant acts, by showing that the appeal to emotional needs exerts a stronger force than the restraint of social laws. With its focus on the subjective, individualistic nature of behaviour, this essay looks at the existential being's need for self-affirmation to make a meaningful interpretation of his life. Self-affirmation has a seductive power, but this essay will argue that the need to reinforce one's ontological security over-arches the issue of whether an act is criminal or not.

The Project of Self-Affirmation

For centuries, it has been understood that social behaviour can be ordered by the regulation of individual emotions. But, as Elias describes, time and the civilizing process have wrought far-reaching effects on the way in which an individual might handle himself emotionally.

"It is they, these relationships within man between the drives and affects controlled and the built-in controlling agencies, whose structure changes in the course of a civilizing process, in accordance with the changing structure of the relationships between individual human beings, in society at large. In the course of this process, to put it briefly and all too simply, 'consciousness' becomes less permeable by drives, and drives become less permeable by 'consciousness'." (Elias, N. 1982, p.286)

To understand the modern relationship between an individual's rational consciousness and his emotional drives and affects, we turn to the existentialist movement. Fathered by Soren Kierkegaard, nurtured by Frederich Nietzsche, the existentialist doctrine placed its emphasis on the passions and anxieties of the individual man, and rejected the objective and mechanistic systems of thought that had become prevalent by the nineteenth century. Existentialism was a philosophy of subjectivity, a psychology of the spirit. It was a backlash against the predominant philosophers of the Enlightenment who gave little consideration to the subject of the individual, aside from the matter of his reason and the role that passion and imagination might play in emancipating reason's powers.

Kierkegaard was the first to articulate that objectified knowledge was no answer to the real questions of an individual's life. "Their resolutions emerge through conflicts and tumults in the soul, anxieties, agonies, perilous adventures of faith into unknown territories." (Sartre 1966 Mairet p 6) Truth is subjectivity, argued Kierkegaard. And, in the hands of the existentialists, individual man was given supreme responsibility for his own existence, taken in past eras by gods, kings and science.

The primary concern of the existentialist school was to explain how an individual consciousness makes sense of existence, in other words, how to explain what it is like to be a human being. It was an aim shared by the phenomenologists, a contemporaneous discipline whose most famous son was Martin Heidegger, who explored the effective and emotive aspects of the mind by looking at its perceptual faculties. Both philosophies started from the same principles: that the world is not a separate physical entity to a man, rather that the man's reality ('dasein') is his interaction with the world and the creation of individual perspectives that make use of what he has found in his situation. The true reality is interdependence. The world does not exist outside the man a denial of much Enlightenment philosophy and man does not exist outside of his relationship with the world reflecting the inherent atheism of key authors such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre.

The existential atheist Jean-Paul Sartre pronounced that man's existence precedes and commands his essence, distinguishing between the fact of being, and the nature of being, or way of life; "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself afterwards." (Sartre 1966 p28) Because man is a free agent, and his will is exercised without reference to universal standards, he can choose his essence, whether he will be a submissive or a dominant self, a generous or a miserly self. Because essence follows existence, it is clear that each and every man will be what he wishes himself to be. In other words, there can no universal definition of a man. Or, as Sartre puts it, "there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception o0f it. Man simply is....Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself." (Sartre 1966 p28)

This emphatically anti-determinist philosophy places the burden of responsibility squarely on each individual's shoulders. "He cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse." (Sartre 1966 p34). There is no predetermined human nature to blame for events, rather each man must choose his own course of action and, in so doing, he chooses an image of what he believes all men should be. Not only is man responsible for his own image, he is indirectly responsible for fashioning the image of all other men. This is a frightening responsibility, and Sartre admits that many will suffer anxiety as a result of having to bear it. But no one can hide from the responsibility, for making no choice and taking no action is in itself a choice and an action.

As an alternative to anxiety, or angst, some men will try to convince themselves that they had no choice, that they were not responsible for their actions. By blaming the environment, their culture, their situation or their fellow men, they refuse to acknowledge the terrible dilemma of existence. This Sartre calls an act of bad faith, these men he calls cowards. Acting in good faith is acting in the name of freedom.

Nietszche and Sartre agreed, man must create his own values and meanings, but that will be done by action rather than justified by reason; as a result, truth and morality will be determined more by personal experience and action than by an objective rationality. Action must, of course, have a goal and to find one, man will invent purposes or 'projects', "which will themselves confer meaning upon himself and the world of objects all meaningless otherwise and in themselves. There is indeed no reason why a man should do this, and he gets nothing by it except the authentic knowledge that he exists; but that precisely is his great, his transcendent need and desire." (Sartre 1966 Mairet p14)

"The individual, then, may experience his own being as real, alive, whole; as differentiated from the rest of the world in ordinary circumstances so clearly that his identity and autonomy are never in question", writes the celebrated psychologist R.D.Laing in his existential analysis of mental illness. Those who do not have such ontological security may find the ordinary circumstances of everyday life "constitute a continual and deadly threat." (Laing 1960 p43-44) In the most threatened, psychoses may develop. Other risks include a perceived loss of one's own subjectivity, and feeling oneself to be "no more than a thing in the world of the other... without any being for oneself." (Laing 1960 p49) Laing argues that any individual who cannot take the identity of himself and others for granted, "has to become absorbed in contriving ways of trying to be real." In such a way, the development and maintenance of self-esteem can itself be represented as an existential project.

Existential Reading of Crime

If self-affirmation is the project, how far can acts of crime fulfil the brief? If crime is a social construct, strictly speaking, it has no value in the existentialist perspective. If crime is a social construct, surely it is an act of bad faith to claim that one's behaviour was constrained by it? Self-affirmation is achieved by acting authentically, and, outside of the social construct, there is equal value in choosing to have children or become an MP as in choosing to join a gang or pose as a 'badass'.

Conventional criminological theories with their emphasis on objective causal forces have generally failed to find a consistent explanation for crime. The positivist approach in all its guises has proposed that criminals are formed by genetic and hereditary conditions, environmental and cultural influences, psychological aberrations. It has not explained why some criminogenic individuals exhibit none of these factors in their background, nor why many who fit the criminogenic profile do not in fact commit crime. Nor can it provide a convincing argument for areas of criminal behaviour such as non-materialistic and white-collar crimes, or war crimes.

Where objectivity has failed, maybe subjectivity has something to offer. Jack Katz directs us to look at "sensual dynamics", "the ontological validity of passion" and the "genuine experiential creativity of crime" (Katz, J. 1988, pp 6-8)

He writes of the "sneaky thrills" experienced by the casual shoplifter. The objective is not the acquisition of an item, but the taking of it. The knowledge of society's response to the project invests it with significance. Each stage of the enterprise poses a challenge: the anticipation of the deviant act, the art of not drawing attention to oneself, the mastery of the technical wherewithal to acquire the object, the skill involved in getting through the checkout undetected. The many ordinary interactions are made extraordinary by the omission of the one; payment. In some cases, the object itself comes to life, acquiring an almost magical and magnetic power, pulling the shoplifter towards it; " a conventional object...becomes fascinating, seductively drawing the would-be shoplifter to it, only and just because she is playing with imposing a deviant project on the world." (Katz, J. 1988, p.58)

Katz makes a number of interpretations. Firstly, that committing a criminal act like shoplifting or vandalism

"tests one's ability to bound the authentic morality of the self from other's perceptions" (Katz, J. 1988, p.66)

The criminal learns that he can cross the boundaries into someone else's world, take what he wants and get away with it. In some ways, it can be seen as a game; there are two sides, there is always a winner and a loser. The ludic metaphor, as Katz terms it, is familiar from accounts of white-collar financial fraud, where offenders refer to their monetary gains as being unimportant except as a means of keeping score. There's a strong sexual theme to the commission of the crime:

"an element of seduction turning into irrational compulsion" (Katz, J. 1988, p.71)

heightened by the rush of excitement at the moment of the act and the climax of getting away with it. Finally there is the powerful and liberating knowledge that one has successfully violated and transcended moral constraint.

Katz's phenomenological analysis is portable across a wide range of deviant behaviours, across gender, social class and race. "The excitement, you know, that's the part I like: I'm not the sort goes round shooting at random anyone I see. All of my killings they've all had a purpose... Firstly, I don't have to justify myself, there's no need. I guess the way I'd put it would be to say it's like we are at war, me and society I mean. I see myself as a law enforcement officer: only my laws, not yours...I've chosen [a way] which I thoroughly enjoy; it's plotting and scheming and working out a strategy, then putting it into action and seeing if it works...I've been successful a hundred times more often than I've ever been caught for, thas certainly a fact. We're cleverer than we're given credit for, people like me, we certainly are." (Parker 1999 p 90)

Another of Tony Parker's interview subjects describes the search for artistic creativity in a more sedate and conventional setting, which hints at the likely script in high-stakes white-collar crime. "It must be a job with a certain amount of standing and prestige... in addition it must provide me with the opportunity to exercise my brains and ingenuity so that I can consistently fiddle for myself another two or three pounds a week on top of my salary...I want to be able to give expression to this little bent I have, this little quirk or twist that gives me the satisfaction of knowing that just in a minor and unimportant way I'm being cleverer than the accountants or the auditors. This is what gives spice to life as far as I'm concerned." (Parker 1999 p109)

Man's project of self-affirmation determines how he will behave and appear to himself and others. He may face choices that prove uncontroversial in the eyes of society. Or he may choose to show open hostility to, and disavowal of, the societal norms.

"Rebellion may be a clue, then, to the source of meaning for contemporary social man. Given the conscious realization of the inevitability of contradictions in his life, he can transcend what would, under these conditions, be a meaningless existence by rebelling against these very conditions." (Goodwin, A. 1976 , p.838)

Although not all rebellion involves criminal behaviour, and not all crime is rebellious, the existential criminal can still be seen to be exerting what Nietzsche called the 'will to power', rejecting conventions and taking actions that may not be grounded in reason, but are personally authentic, given his situation. "From very young, my sexual orientation and desires have been only for young boys, and because I am what I am and who I am, it seems natural and normal when I express that in a physical way. But no one accepts that: yet I can't feel any different, even if I wanted to, which I don't. It's part of my whole personality and nature, and a very important and solid part...society doesn't agree with me...And, although I know it, I don't see how I'm ever going to be able to do anything about it, because it would be like betraying myself." (Parker 1999 p172-3)

The Moral Power of Emotions

Katz moves the debate on from the material and physical to discuss how an individual can rise to a challenge to his moral existence. "The criminal action itself is fundamentally an attempt to transcend a moral challenge faced by the criminal in the immediate situation." (Vold 1998 p225) Although this is about as watertight as the positivist approach (not everybody faces down a moral challenge by resorting to criminal activity), some existential and phenomenological writers argue that nearly all crime can be seen as a response to a grave threat to the emotions.

"The emotions of modernism anxiety, alienation, self-destruction, radical isolation, anomie, private revolt, madness, hysteria, and neurosis are not able to be subsumed into self-control." (Morrison 1997 p380). Matza talks of the moral nature of the interaction, "infraction", and Morrison of the moral emotions that are at the centre of the crime experience. Katz theorises about humiliation, as a sort of electrical current that runs through all deviant behaviour.

In his chapter on 'Righteous Slaughter' (Katz, J. 1988, p.22), he links the opposing emotions of humiliation and rage using the essential stepping stone of righteousness. "The would-be assailant needs only the most fleeting encounter with the principle of moral reflection to move from humiliation to rage." (p24) Being ridiculed, demeaned, demoted, degraded: the state of humiliation makes one painfully aware of the exigencies of one's existence. Righteousness and rage make one selectively blind, indifferent to the historical and the future moments while completely focussed on the here-and-now and the response required for moral self-defence, even to the extent of deadly assault. Transcending humiliation with righteous rage creates a moral framework that is completely coherent within its situational context: sometimes this is understood in wider society, as has become the case with women who attack their partners after years of domestic violence, more often it is not, as seen in Katz's opening example of a father who beat his child to death for crying which he saw as "purposive and offensive" (Katz, J. 1988, p.12)

Humiliation is also highlighted by Keir Sothcott in an article on war atrocity (2002). Lt. Calley led the American platoon that infamously laid waste to the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968. Clean-cut GIs were subsequently accused of uncontrollable mayhem and violence, rape and murder of civilians, and Lt. Calley was put on trial for murder. Sothcott describes Calley's response to his situation in Vietnam: "From imaginary fear and actual experience Calley concluded that the Vietnamese were mocking him, deriding his supposed omnipotence and refusing to comply with his romantic image of heroic war. ...For Calley, this realisation that Vietnam was insidiously dangerous, became a deeply humiliating experience and a direct attack upon his self." (Sothcott 2002 p 30)

Far from responding to him and his men as saviours of the situation, heroes of the hour, the Vietnamese showed no gratitude to the Americans. This, in addition to the very real hostility and actual threat, contrived a context for Calley that, combined with the moral imperative of his orders from above to 'go in and kill them all', unleashed the sense of righteousness that transformed his humiliation into a righteous slaughter.

The robber who adds a sawn-off shotgun to his bag, the United States government led by George W.Bush which lobbies for war against Iraq: both are engaged in

"a transcendent project to exploit the ultimate symbolic value of force to show that one 'means it'." (Katz, J. 1988, p.321)

It becomes the primary goal, rather than robbing the bank or maintaining manageable relationships in the global supply of oil. As with the shoplifter, who more often than not pays for goods at the check-out while stealing others, the project is not characterised by material gain. For the United States administration, as with Katz's "badass" and "hardman", transcendence can be achieved purely by having a presence, by being completely intimidating.

"The hardman triumphs, after all, by inducing others to calculate the costs and benefits." (Katz, J. 1988, p.235)

Criminological Theories

The impact of emotions is referenced in other dimensions of the criminal justice cycle. In victimology, the dominant affect is acknowledged in the discourse; we talk of the Fear Of Crime, even if the study of this fear is largely actuarial statistics. And perhaps the greatest of all the emotional drives...revenge...is the principal player in the theatre of punishment. Anger and vengeance have a high degree of social acceptance when they are channelled into procedures such as the criminal justice system.

"Emotions are the most toxic substance known to man" said Dennis Nilsen. (Masters 1995 p184). Emotions are certainly the most toxic substance known to criminologists, who have studiously avoided incorporating the seductions and repulsions of deviant behaviour into their work, although David Matza's theory of techniques of neutralization can be compared to the existentialist vision of bad faith, in the criminal's desire to hide his belief in conventional morality behind excuses rather than challenge it and take responsibility for his actions. Symbolic interactionism looks at the self-image of the criminal, and how he perceives the relationship between himself and other members and institutions of society. Labelling theorists also concern themselves with image, but in the context of how society will apply it within the formal and informal processes of social control.

The solutions proposed by many criminologists seem to apply to man's reason and/or self-control. To me, it is clear that most people have both, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, and that it is this very symbiosis that dictates when either reason or self-control, or both, should be used. As we read Katz's accounts of righteous slaughter, offending behaviour can be seen contextually as not only moral but rational. To cut the mustard as a 'badass' clearly requires as much personal self-control as being a stockbroker.

So the question is why the seductive appeal of illegitimate behaviours can be resisted by some people but not by others. Given an emotional cocktail of humiliation, moral righteousness and anger, some men turn into killers but others do not. The existentialist perspective of self-affirmation provides an understanding of, but maybe not an explanation for, criminal behaviour. Taking a phenomenological perspective, one can look behind the arbitrary legal definitions of 'crime' to see positive qualities of imaginativeness, sensuality, self-esteem, and creativity being exercised in certain behaviours. We would accept the desire for a rush of excitement, the thrill of courting danger, as valid motivations for bungee-jumping... ...but not public affray. We do not approve of the fact that someone injects heroin because he wants to feel good...yet it is highly fashionable to inject botulinum toxin for cosmetic benefit. The matrix of licit and illicit behaviour becomes even more complex as one moves the context across time or space: activities which once were criminal are now legitimate, behaviour that is proscribed in one society is accepted in another.

Clearly the conditions in which people live will determine what possibilities they have, and this is perhaps the point when, like the orchestra coming in behind the soloist, the body of mainstream criminology can further the existential explanation...for example, by examining the ways in which cultural, environmental and social factors might shape choices.

In conclusion, a close reading of the work of Katz and other existentialist and phenomenologist writers suggests to me that crime is at its most seductive for individuals who generate their self-esteem from quick fixes, short-term projects with a rapid turnaround where stimulation and instant gratification are the priorities; the clue is present in the language we use - 'taking control of the moment'. Projects of self-affirmation that can be sustained over a longer term can sidestep the technical transgression that is crime.

"The most fundamental characteristic of man and consciousness is his ability to go beyond his situation. He is never identical with it, but rather exists as a relation to it. Thus he determines how he will live it and what its meaning is to be; he is not determined by it." (Sartre 1963 Barnes pxix) Could this equally well be read as an existential commentary on how futile it is to try and contain the self within the artificial boundaries of a social construct like crime?


Elias, N. 1982 The Civilising Process Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Goodwin, A. 1976 'On Transcending the Absurd' American Journal of Sociology March 1976 pp 831-846

Katz, J. 1988 Seductions of Crime New York: Basic Books

Katz, J. 2002 Social Ontology and Research (Accessed 27.11.02)

Laing, R.D. 1960 The Divided Self London: Tavistock

Masters, B. 1995 Killing for Company London: Arrow Books

Morrison, W. 1997 Theoretical Criminology London: Cavendish

Parker, T. 1999 Criminal Conversations London: Routledge

Sartre, J-P. 1963 The Problem of Method (Introduction by Hazel Barnes) London: Methuen

Sartre, J-P. 1966 Existentialism and Humanism (Introduction by Philip Mairet) London: Methuen

Sothcott, K. 2002 The Seductions of War and the Existential Origins of Military Atrocity (Accessed 27.11.02)

Vold, G. and Bernard, T. 1998 Theoretical Criminology Oxford: OUP

Essay copyright Ginny Goudy 2003

Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

Existentialist movement

Jean-Paul Sartre


index of some of the essays on this site