Lysander Spooner on Vice

Here is the first paragraph from Lysander Spooner‘s famous essay ‘Vices are not Crimes – a Vindication of Moral Liberty’, which is another thing that has come up during recent discussions hereabouts.

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.


  1. I agree that vices are not crimes – but to say they are just errors that imply no hostility to others is not always true.

    Meaness, rudeness, cruelity (in the sense of going out of one’s way just to someone a, perfectly legal, ill turn) are based on hostility to others.

    Also vices are not just errors in regard to one’s self – things like lazyness and so on can debilitate an entire life, to call them just “errors” is far to mild a word. There is a moral content here.

    Ethics is not simply about justice – about not aggressing against the bodies and goods of others.

    Ethics (virtue and vice) is about a lot more than crimes.



  2. When you put into the mix the warped notions that all we do is based on the efforts of those that went before us, that “we owe our lives to the NHS”, etc, you can see why those same people are happy to criminalise anything.



  3. “we owe our lives to the NHS”.

    It is astonishing that anyone can think that – but yes Tim, thanks to the endless propaganda of the education system and the media, that is what many people do believe.



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