Featured Essay
Featured Link

Full Collections
Essays (425)
Quotations (6095)
Links (715)
Books (232)

Other Pages
About Us
Bookseller Affiliations
Contact Us
Editorial Board
Excellent Essays
Excellent Sites
Liberal Magic
Mush Quotations
Our New Look
Privacy Policy
Sign Up!
Amazon.com online bookstore


Vices Are Not Crimes - Parts 1 to 17


A Vindication Of Moral Liberty


Lysander Spooner

 Author Notes

American lawyer, philosopher, abolitionist, libertarian, author of No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

 Essay - 1/1/1875


Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.

Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.

Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.

In vices, the very essence of crime - that is, the design to injure the person or property of another - is wanting.

It is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another. But no one ever practises a vice with any such criminal intent. He practises his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property; no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.

For a government to declare a vice to be a crime, and to punish it as such, is an attempt to falsify the very nature of things. It is as absurd as it would be to declare truth to be falsehood, or falsehood truth.


Every voluntary act of a manís life is either virtuous or vicious. That is to say, it is either in accordance, or in conflict, with those natural laws of matter and mind, on which his physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being depend. In other words, every act of his life tends, on the whole, either to his happiness, or to his unhappiness. No single act in his whole existence is indifferent.

Furthermore, each human being differs in his physical, mental, and emotional constitution, and also in the circumstances by which he is surrounded, from every other human being. Many acts, therefore, that are virtuous, and tend to happiness, in the case of one person, are vicious, and tend to unhappiness, in the case of another person.

Many acts, also, that are virtuous, and tend to happiness, in the case of one man, at one time, and under one set of circumstances, are vicious, and tend to unhappiness, in the case of the same man, at another time, and under other circumstances.


To know what actions are virtuous, and what vicious - in other words, to know what actions tend, on the whole, to happiness, and what to unhappiness - in the case of each and every man, in each and all the conditions in which they may severally be placed, is the profoundest and most complex study to which the greatest human mind ever has been, or ever can be, directed. It is, nevertheless, the constant study to which each and every man - the humblest in intellect as well as the greatest - is necessarily driven by the desires and necessities of his own existence. It is also the study in which each and every person, from his cradle to his grave, must necessarily form his own conclusions; because no one else knows or feels, or can know or feel, as he knows and feels, the desires and necessities, the hopes, and fears, and impulses of his own nature, or the pressure of his own circumstances.


It is not often possible to say of those acts that are called vices, that they really are vices, except in degree. That is, it is difficult to say of any actions, or courses of action, that are called vices, that they really would have been vices, if they had stopped short of a certain point. The question of virtue or vice, therefore, in all such cases, is a question of quantity and degree, and not of the intrinsic character of any single act, by itself. This fact adds to the difficulty, not to say the impossibility, of any oneís - except each individual for himself - drawing any accurate line, or anything like any accurate line, between virtue and vice; that is, of telling where virtue ends, and vice begins. And this is another reason why this whole question of virtue and vice should be left for each person to settle for himself.


Vices are usually pleasurable, at least for the time being, and often do not disclose themselves as vices, by their effects, until after they have been practised for many years; perhaps for a lifetime. To many, perhaps most, of those who practise them, they do not disclose themselves as vices at all during life. Virtues, on the other band, often appear so harsh and rugged, they require the sacrifice of so much present happiness, at least, and the results, which alone prove them to be virtues, are often so distant and obscure, in fact, so absolutely invisible to the minds of many, especially of the young, that, from the very nature of things, there can be no universal, or even general, knowledge that they are virtues. In truth, the studies of profound philosophers have been expended - if not wholly in vain, certainly with very small results - in efforts to draw the lines between the virtues and the vices.

If, then, it became so difficult, so nearly impossible, in most cases, to determine what is, and what is not, vice; and especially if it be so difficult, in nearly all cases, to determine where virtue ends, and vice begins; and if these questions, which no one can really and truly determine for anybody but himself, are not to be left free and open for experiment by all, each person is deprived of the highest of all his rights as a human being, to wit: his right to inquire, investigate, reason, try experiments, judge, and ascertain for himself, what is, to him, virtue, and what is, to him, vice; in other words: what, on the whole, conduces to his happiness, and what, on the whole, tends to his unhappiness. If this great right is not to be left free and open to all, then each manís whole right, as a reasoning human being, to" liberty and the pursuit of happiness," is denied him.


We all come into the world in ignorance of ourselves, and of everything around us. By a fundamental law of our natures we are all constantly impelled by the desire of happiness, and the fear of pain. But we have everything to learn, as to what will give us happiness, and save us from pain. No two of us are wholly alike, either physically, mentally, or emotionally; or, consequently, in our physical, mental, or emotional requirements for the acquisition of happiness, and the avoidance of unhappiness. No one of us, therefore, can learn this indispensable lesson of happiness and unhappiness, of virtue and vice, for another. Each must learn it for himself. To learn it, he must be at liberty to try all experiments that commend themselves to his judgment. Some of his experiments succeed, and, because they succeed, are called virtues; others fail, and, because they fail, are called vices. He gathers wisdom as much from his failures as from his successes; from his so-called vices, as from his so-called virtues. Both are necessary to his acquisition of that knowledge - of his own nature, and of the world around him, and of their adaptations or non-adaptations to each other - which shall show him how happiness is acquired, and pain avoided. And, unless he can be permitted to try these experiments to his own satisfaction, he is restrained from the acquisition of knowledge, and, consequently, from pursuing the great purpose and duty of his life.


A man is under no obligation to take anybodyís word, or yield to anybody authority, on a matter so vital to himself, and in regard to which no one else has, or can have, any such interest as he. He cannot, if he would, safely rely upon the opinions of other men, because be finds that the opinions of other men do not agree. Certain actions, or courses of action, have been practised by many millions of men, through successive generations, and have been held by them to be, on the whole, conducive to happiness, and therefore virtuous. Other men, in other ages or countries, or under other condition, have held, as the result of their experience and observation, that these actions tended, on the whole, to unhappiness, and were therefore vicious. The question of virtue or vice, as already remarked in a previous section, has also been, in most minds, a question of degree; that is, of the extent to which certain actions should be carried; and not of the intrinsic character of any single act, by itself. The questions of virtue and vice have therefore been as various, and, in fact, as infinite, as the varieties of mind, body, and condition of the different individuals inhabiting the globe. And the experience of ages has left an infinite number of these questions unsettled. In fact, it can scarcely be said to have settled any of them.


In the midst of this endless variety of opinion, what man, or what body of men, has the right to say, in regard to any particular action, or course of action, "We have tried this experiment, and determined every question involved in it? We have determined it, not only for ourselves, but for all others? And, as to all those who are weaker than we, we will coerce them to act in obedience to our conclusion? We will suffer no further experiment or inquiry by any one, and, consequently, no further acquisition of knowledge by anybody?"

Who are the men who have the right to say this? Certainly there none such. The men who really do say it, are either shameless impostors and tyrants, who would stop the progress of knowledge, and usurp absolute control over the minds and bodies of their fellow men; and are therefore to resisted instantly, and to the last extent; or they are themselves too ignorant of their own weaknesses, and of their true relations to other men, to be entitled to any other consideration than sheer pity or contempt.

We know, however, that there are such men as these in the world. Some of them attempt to exercise their power only within a small sphere, to wit, upon their children, their neighbors, their townsmen, and their countrymen. Others attempt to exercise it on a larger scale. For example, an old man at Rome, aided by a few subordinates, attempts to decide all questions of virtue and vice; that is, of truth or falsehood, especially in matters of religion. He claims to know and teach what religious ideas and practices are conducive, or fatal, to a manís happiness, not only in this world, but in that which is to come. He claims to be miraculously inspired for the performance of this work; thus virtually acknowledging, like a sensible man, that nothing short of miraculous inspiration would qualify him for it. This miraculous inspiration, however, has been ineffectual to enable him to settle more than a very few questions. The most important to which common mortals can attain, is an implicit belief in his (the popeís) infallibility! and, secondly, that the blackest vices of which they can be guilty are to believe and declare that he is only a man like the rest of them!

It required some fifteen or eighteen hundred years to enable him to reach definite conclusions on these two vital points. Yet it would seem that the first of these must necessarily be preliminary to his settlement of any other questions; because, until his own infallibility is determined, he can authoritatively decide nothing else. He has, however, heretofore attempted or pretended to settle a few others. And he may, perhaps, attempt or pretend to settle a few more in the future, if he shall continue to find anybody to listen to him. But his success, thus far, certainly does not encourage the belief that he will be able to settle all questions of virtue and vice, even in his peculiar department of religion, in time to meet the necessities of mankind. He, or his successors, will undoubtedly be compelled, at no distant day, to acknowledge that he has undertaken a task to which all his miraculous inspiration was inadequate; and that, of necessity, each human being must be left to settle all questions of this kind for himself. And it is not unreasonable to expect that all other popes, in other and lesser spheres, will some time have cause to come to the same conclusion. No one, certainly, not claiming supernatural inspiration, should undertake a task to which obviously nothing less than such inspiration is adequate. And, clearly, no one should surrender his own judgment to the teachings of others, unless he be first convinced that these others have something more than ordinary human knowledge on this subject.

If those persons, who fancy themselves gifted with both the power and the right to define and punish other menís vices, would but turn their thoughts inwardly, they would probably find that they have a great work to do at home; and that, when that shall have been completed, they will be little disposed to do more towards correcting the vices of others, than simply to give to others the results of their experience and observation. In this sphere their labors may possibly be useful; but, in the sphere of infallibility and coercion, they will probably, for well-known reasons, meet with even less success in the future than such men have met with in the past.


It is now obvious, from the reasons already given, that government would be utterly impracticable, if it were to take cognizance of vices, and punish them as crimes. Every human being has his or her vices. Nearly all men have a great many. And they are of all kinds; physiological, mental, emotional; religious, social, commercial, industrial, economical, &c., &c. If government is to take cognizance of any of these vices, and punish them as crimes, then, to be consistent, it must take cognizance of all, and punish all impartially. The consequence would be, that everybody would be in prison for his or her vices. There would be no one left outside to lock the doors upon those within. In fact, courts enough could not be found to try the offenders, nor prisons enough built to hold them. All human industry in the acquisition of knowledge, and even in acquiring the means of subsistence, would be arrested: for we should all be under constant trial or imprisonment for our vices. But even if it were possible to imprison all the vicious, our knowledge of human nature tells us that, as a general rule, they would be far more vicious prison than they ever have been out of it.


A government that shall punish all vices impartially is so obviously an impossibility, that nobody was ever found, or ever will be found, foolish enough to propose it. The most that any one proposes is, that government shall punish some one, or at most a few, of what he esteems the grossest of them. But this discrimination an utterly absurd, illogical, and tyrannical one. What right has any body of men to say, "The vices of other men we will punish; but our own vices nobody shall punish? We will restrain other men from seeking their own happiness, according to their own notions of it; but nobody shall restrain us from seeking our own happiness, according to our own notions of it? We will restrain other men from acquiring any experimental knowledge of what is conducive or necessary, to their own happiness; but nobody shall restrain us from acquiring an experimental knowledge of what is conducive or necessary to our own happiness?"

Nobody but knaves or blockheads ever thinks of making such absurd assumptions as these. And yet, evidently, it is only upon such assumptions that anybody can claim the right to punish the vices of others, and at the same time claim exemption from punishment for his own.


Such a thing as a government, formed by voluntary association, would never have been thought of, if the object proposed had been the punishment of all vices, impartially; because nobody wants such an institution, or would voluntarily submit to it. But a government, formed by voluntary association, for the punishment of all crimes is a reasonable matter; because everybody wants protection for himself against all crimes by others, and also acknowledges the justice of his own punishment, if he commits a crime.


It is a natural impossibility that a government should have a right to punish men for their vices; because it is impossible that a government should have any rights, except such as the individuals composing it had previously had, as individuals. They could not delegate to a government any rights which they did not themselves possess. They could not contribute to the government any rights, except such as they themselves possessed as individuals. Now, nobody but a fool or an impostor pretends that he, as an individual, has a right to punish other men for their vices. But anybody and everybody have a natural right, as individuals, to punish other men for their crimes; for everybody has a natural right, not only to defend his own person and property against aggressors, but also to go to the assistance and defence of everybody else, whose person or property is invaded. The natural right of each individual to defend his own person and property against an aggressor, and to go to the assistance and defence of every one else whose person or property is invaded, is a right without which men could not exist on the earth. And government has no rightful existence, except in so far as it embodies, and is limited by, this natural right of individuals. But the idea that each man has a natural right to decide what are virtues, and what are vices - that is, what contributes to that neighbors happiness, and what do not - and to punish him for all that do not contribute to it; is what no one ever had the impudence or folly to assert. It is only those who claim that government has some rightful power, which no individual or individuals ever did, or could, delegate to it, that claim that government has any rightful power to punish vices.

It will do for a pope or a king - who claims to have received direct authority from Heaven, to rule over his fellow men - to claim the right, as the vicegerent of God, to punish men for their vices; but it is a sheer and utter absurdity for any government, claiming to derive its power wholly from the grant of the governed, to claim any such power; because everybody knows that the governed never would grant it. For them to grant it would be an absurdity, because it would be granting away their own right to seek their own happiness; since to grant away their right to judge of what will be for their happiness, is to grant away all their right to pursue their own happiness.


We can now see how simple, easy, and reasonable a matter is a government is for the punishment of crimes, as compared with one for the punishment of vices. Crimes are few, and easily distinguished from all other acts; and mankind are generally agreed as to what acts are crimes. Whereas vices are innumerable; and no two persons are agreed, except in comparatively few cases, as to what are vices. Furthermore, everybody wishes to be protected, into his person and property, against the aggressions of other men. But nobody wishes to be protected, either in his person or property, against himself; because it is contrary to the fundamental laws of human nature itself, that any one should wish to harm himself. He only wishes to promote his own happiness, and to be his own judge as to what will promote, and does promote, his own happiness. This is what every one wants, and has a right to, as a human being. And though we all make many mistakes, and necessarily must make them, from the imperfection of our knowledge, yet these mistakes are no argument against the right; because they all tend to give us the very knowledge we need, and are in pursuit of, and can get in no other way.

The object aims at in the punishment of crimes, therefore, is not only wholly different from, but it is directly opposed to, that aimed at in the punishment of vices.

The object aimed at in the punishment of crimes is to secure,to each and every man alike, the fullest liberty he possibly can have - consistently with the equal rights of others - to pursue his own happiness, under the guidance of his own judgment, and by the use of his own property. On the other hand, the object aimed at in the punishment of vices, is to deprive every man of his natural right and liberty to pursue his own happiness, under the guidance of his own judgment, and by the use of his own property.

These two objects, then, are directly opposed to each other. They are as directly opposed to each other as are light and darkness, or as truth and falsehood, or as liberty and slavery. They are utterly incompatible with each other; and to suppose the two to be embraced in one and the same government, is an absurdity, an impossibility. It is to suppose the objects of a government to be to commit crimes, and to prevent crimes; to destroy individual liberty, and to secure individual liberty.


Finally, on this point of individual liberty: every man must necessarily judge and determine for himself as to what is conducive and necessary to, and what is destructive of, his own well-being; because, if he omits to perform this task for himself, nobody else can perform it for him. And nobody else will even attempt to perform it for him, except in very few cases. Popes, and priests, and kings will assume to perform it for him, in certain cases, if permitted to do so. But they will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can minister to their own vices and crimes, by doing it. They will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can make him their fool and their slave. Parents, with better motives, no doubt, than the others, too often attempt the same work. But in so far as they practise coercion, or restrain a child from anything not really and seriously dangerous to himself, they do him a harm, rather than a good. It is a law of Nature that to get knowledge, and to incorporate that knowledge into his own being, each individual must get it for himself. Nobody, not even his parents, can tell him the nature of fire, so that he will really know it. He must himself experiment with it, and be burnt by it, before he can know it.

Nature knows, a thousand times better than any parent, what she designs each individual for, what knowledge he requires, and how he must get it. She knows that her own processes for communicating that knowledge are not only the best, but the only ones that can be effectual.

The attempts of parents to make their children virtuous generally little else than attempts to keep them in ignorance of vice. They are little else than attempts to teach their children to know and prefer truth, by keeping them in ignorance of falsehood. They are little else than attempts to make them seek and appreciate health, by keeping them in ignorance of disease, and of everything that will cause disease. They are little else than attempts to make their children love the light, by keeping them in ignorance of darkness. In short, they are little else than attempts to make their children happy, by keeping them in ignorance of everything that causes them unhappiness.

In so far as parents can really aid their children in the latterís search after happiness, by simply giving them the results of their (the parentsí) own reason and experience, it is all very well, and is a natural and appropriate duty. But to practise coercion in matters of which the children are reasonably competent to judge for themselves, is only an attempt to keep them in ignorance. And this is as much a tyranny, and as much a violation of the childrenís right to acquire knowledge for themselves, and such knowledge as they desire, as is the same coercion when practised upon older persons. Such coercion, practised upon children, is a denial of their right to develop the faculties that Nature has given them, and to be what Nature designs them to be. It is a denial of their right to themselves, and to the use of their own powers. It is a denial of their right to acquire the most valuable of all knowledge, to wit, the knowledge that Nature, the great teacher, stands ready to impart to them.

The results of such coercion are not to make the children wise or virtuous, but to make them ignorant, and consequently weak and vicious; and to perpetuate through them, from age to age, the ignorance, the superstitions, the vices, and the crimes of the parents. This is proved by every page of the worldís history.

Those who hold opinions opposite to these, are those whose false and vicious theologies, or whose own vicious general ideas, have taught them that the human race are naturally given to evil, rather than good; to the false, rather than the true; that mankind do not naturally turn their eyes to the light; that they love darkness, rather than light; and that they find their happiness only in those things that tend to their misery.


But these men, who claim that government shall use its power to prevent vice, will say, or are in the habit of saying, "We acknowledge the right of an individual to seek his own happiness in his own way, and consequently to be as vicious as be pleases; we only claim that government shall prohibit the sale to him of those articles by which he ministers to his vice."

The answer to this is, that the simple sale of any article whatever - independently of the use that is to be made of the article - is legally a perfectly innocent act. The quality of the act of sale depends wholly upon the quality of the use for which the thing is sold. If the use of anything is virtuous and lawful, then the sale of it, for that use, is virtuous and lawful. If the use is vicious, then the sale of it, for that use, is vicious. If the use is criminal, then the sale of it, for that use, is criminal. The seller is, at most, only an accomplice in the use that is to be made of the article sold, whether the use be virtuous, vicious, or criminal. Where the use is criminal, the seller is an accomplice in the crime, and punishable as such. But where the use is only vicious, the seller is only an accomplice in the vice, and is not punishable.


But it will be asked, "Is there no right, on the part of government, to arrest the progress of those who are bent on self-destruction?"

The answer is, that government has no rights whatever in the matter, so long as these so-called vicious persons remain sane, compos mentis, capable of exercising reasonable discretion and self-control; because, so long as they do remain sane, they must be allowed to judge and decide for themselves whether their so-called vices really are vices; whether they really are leading them to destruction; and whether, on the whole, they will go there or not. When they shall become insane, non compos mentis, incapable of reasonable discretion or self-control, their friends or neighbors, or the government, must take care of them, and protect them from harm, and against all persons who would do them harm, in the same way as if their insanity had come upon them from any other cause than their supposed vices.

But because a man is supposed, by his neighbors, to be on the way to self-destruction, from his vices, it does not, therefore, follow that he is insane, non compos mentis, incapable of reasonable discretion and self-control, within the legal meaning of those terms. Men and women may be addicted to very gross vices, and to a great many of them - such as gluttony, drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, prize-fighting, tobacco-chewing, smoking, and snuffing, opium-eating, corset-wearing, idleness, waste of property, avarice, hypocrisy, &c., &c. - and still be sane, compos mentis, capable of reasonable discretion and self-control, within the meaning of the law. And so long as they are sane, they must be permitted to control themselves and their property, and to be their own judges as to where their vices will finally lead them. It may be hoped by the lookers-on, in each individual case, that the vicious person will see the end to which he is tending, and be induced to turn back. But, if he chooses to go on to what other men call destruction, be must be permitted to do so. And all that can be said of him,so far as this life is concerned, is, that he made a great mistake in his search after happiness, and that others will do well to take warning by his fate. As to what maybe his condition in another life, that is a theological question with which the law, in this world, has no more to do than it has with any other theological question, touching menís condition in a future life.

If it be asked how the question of a vicious manís sanity or insanity is to be determined? The answer is, that it is to be determined by the same kinds of evidence as is the sanity or insanity of those who are called virtuous; and not otherwise. That is, by the same kinds of evidence by which the legal tribunals determine whether a man should be sent to an asylum for lunatics, or whether he is competent to make a will, or otherwise dispose of his property. Any doubt must weigh in favor of his sanity, as in all other cases, and not of his insanity.

If a person really does become insane, non compos mentis, incapable of reasonable discretion or self-control, it is then a crime, on the part of other men, to give to him or sell to him, the means of self-injury.1 There are no crimes more easily punished, no cases in which juries would be more ready to convict, than those where a sane person should sell or give to an insane one any article with which the latter was likely to injure himself.


But it will be said that some men are made, by their vices, dangerous to other persons; that a drunkard, for example, is sometimes quarrelsome and dangerous toward his family or others. And it will be asked, "Has the law nothing to do in such a case?"

The answer is, that if, either from drunkenness or any other cause, a man be really dangerous, either to his family or to other persons, not only himself may be rightfully restrained, so far as the safety of other persons requires, but all other person - who know or have reasonable grounds to believe him dangerous - may also be restrained from selling or giving to him anything that they have reason to suppose will make him dangerous.

But because one man becomes quarrelsome and dangerous after drinking spirituous liquors, and because it is a crime to give or sell liquor to such a man, it does not follow at all that it is a crime to sell liquors to the hundreds and thousands of other persons, who are not made quarrelsome or dangerous by drinking them. Before a man can be convicted of crime in selling liquor to a dangerous man, it must be shown that the particular man, to whom the liquor was sold, was dangerous; and also that the seller knew, or had reasonable grounds to suppose, that the man would be made dangerous by drinking it.

The presumption of law is,in all cases, that the sale is innocent; and the burden of proving it criminal, in any particular case, rests upon the government. And that particular case must be proved criminal, independently of all others.

Subject to these principles, there is no difficulty convicting and punishing men for the sale or gift of any article to a man, who is made dangerous to others by the use of it.

Vices Are Not Crimes - Parts 18 to 22

This article is the property of its author and/or copyright holder. Any use other than personal reading of the article may infringe legal rights.
Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.