The Moral Vigilante and Her Cousins in the Shadows

By definition, vigilantes cannot be legally justified—if they satisfied a justification defense, for example, they would not be lawbreakers— but they may well be morally justified, if their aim is to provide the order and justice that the criminal justice system has failed to provide in a breach of the social contract. Yet, even moral vigilantism is detrimental to society and ought to be avoided, ideally not by prosecuting moral vigilantism but by avoiding the creation of situations that would call for it. Unfortunately, the U.S. criminal justice system has adopted a wide range of criminal law rules and procedures that regularly and intentionally produce gross failures of justice. These doctrines of disillusionment may provoke vigilante acts,but not in numbers that make it a serious practical problem. More damaging is their tendency to provoke what might be called “shadow vigilantism,” in which civilians and officials feel morally justified in manipulating or subverting the criminal justice system to compel the system to deliver the justice that it appears reluctant to impose. Unfortunately, shadow vigilantism can be widespread and impossible to effectively prosecute, leaving the system’s justness seriously distorted. This, in turn, can provoke a damaging antisystem response, as in the “Stop Snitching” movement, that further degrades the system’s reputation for doing justice, producing a downward spiral of lost credibility and deference. We would all be better off—citizens and offenders alike—if this dirty war had never started. What is needed is a reexamination of all of the doctrines of disillusionment, with an eye toward reformulating them to promote the interests they protect in ways that avoid gross failures of justice.

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