This weekend my cheque card credentials were stolen and then used to purchase cinema tickets. This was entirely my own fault. I was not a “victim”, I was not hurt, and can think of no excuse other than I was simply not being observant. As such this is not a whinge against crime in South Africa. I try to be aware of my privileged position in the country, and that the unauthorised use of my card and its subsequent cancellation was at worst an inconvenience. For some this type of crime can be far more problematic. The inconvenience did however get me thinking about the concept of “the criminal” in relation to “the legitimate”, the interlink of which I want to explore through a very old thought experiment called “the stag hunt”.

In its most frequently cited guise the thought experiment is attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Imagine a group of hunters engaged in the stalking of a large animal, such as a stag. In order to hunt down and kill the animal they all have to play a unique and cooperative role with each other and as a group. If one individual fails to play their part, the hunt will fail. Equally however each individual has the capability of hunting smaller prey by themselves. Suppose then this group escapes to the countryside to hunt down a stag. As they are in the final stage of stalking said stag, a hunter spots a hare in close reach. If he strikes out and kills the hare the hunt will fail but the hunter will have secured food for himself. If however the hunter ignores the hare and carries on cooperating with the rest of the group, one of the other hunters may strike out, thus gaining the hare but causing the hunt to fail. Knowing this, should the first hunter take the risk and trust the others to cooperate in order to take down the stag, or should he act in his own self-interest and take the hare, thus ensuring himself food but causing the hunt to fail? Rousseau famously argues that self-interest would prevail, that the hunter would satisfy his own needs over that of the group, and therefore, knowing this means that everyone should act defensively and in their own self-interest.

Of course a number of people have taken issue with this thought experiment and its assumptions about human nature. However it does provide a useful conceptual mirror by which to view crime in this country. If everyone acted cooperatively, and importantly, we could trust everyone to continue to act cooperatively, would crime exist? This is however problematised by the thought that even in a perfect system, those who did not play by the rules would benefit the greatest. Knowing this therefore requires that we act selfishly and only cooperate insofar as we know others are also forced to cooperate (ie one of the purposes of the law). Indeed, the idea might be extended to argue that we cooperate with the law only insofar as we do not want punitive measures enforced against us.

What does all this have to do with cheque card fraud and crime in the country you may ask? After all crime, and criminal behaviour, is the result of far more complex social phenomena — the rampant crime in this country can be seen as a function of grinding poverty, social inequality and political impotency, among other things. Self-interest is at best somewhere quite far down the list. However, just like in the stag hunt, if we all continue to act solely in our own self-interest we will never really begin to change the cultural attitudes towards opportunistic crime. To prevent this type of crime demands that we all attempt to begin to trust each other and that we all hold each other accountable. Opportunistic crime occurs not only because we often fail to be vigilant, but also because everyone seems to be looking out for his or her own self-interest. Perhaps, to begin to stop this, one would need to entrench a mutual understanding of our shared humanity although I am unsure just how we might begin to work towards this.

Perhaps I am being too hopeful though and this is at best an ill-thought-out pipe dream. But as the Christmas adverts constantly tell us, it is apparently the season to give (I am still unsure why we should only give in December but that’s another story). Maybe then it is time to recognise that we are individuals not through ourselves, but through each other.

Finally, I wish I could know what movie the people who used my card’s credentials watched. I do hope it was not Twilight, or that would have made this a double crime.


Simon Howell

Simon Howell

Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD...

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