Moral indignation, class inequality and justice

AuthorJ. M. Barbalet
Published date01 August 2002
Date01 August 2002
Subject MatterArticles
Moral indignation, class
inequality and justice:
An exploration and revision of Ranulf
University of Leicester, UK
Svend Ranulf’s characterization of criminal law as a ‘disinterested
tendency to inflict punishment’ challenges the conventional view
that whereas crime may express emotion, emotion is extinguished
in the operations of law. This is because Ranulf argues that criminal
law arises through middle-class moral indignation. Thus an
emotion, moral indignation, links social structure—in the form of
class configuration, and social action—to the formation of criminal
law. In the discussion to follow, Ranulf’s thesis is situated in the
development of the sociology of criminal law, critically evaluated,
and reformulated. The continuing relevance of Ranulf’s framework is
also indicated.
Key Words
crime • emotions • law • moral indignation • punishment
Conventional accounts of the relationship between crime, human emotions
and law as social control clearly point in one direction. They hold that
whereas crime might express emotion, emotion is extinguished in the
operations of law. This is well expressed, for instance, in Friedrich Nietzs-
che’s argument that the institution of law is not so much the result of
Theoretical Criminology
© 2002 SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi.
Vol. 6(3): 279–297; 026024
ressentiment as a means of displacing it: law takes ‘the object of ressenti-
ment out of the hands of revenge’ and establishes independent norms for
the restitution of injury (1992 [1887]: 511). Max Weber develops this idea
more fully in his sociology of law (1978 [1922]: 651–2), which continues to
influence our understandings of the origins and development of legal
One assumption that supports the idea that whereas crime might express
emotion, law extinguishes it, is that law is impersonal. This latter notion is
expressed through the description of law, in Nietzsche’s terms, as a
‘supreme power’, and as Weber described it, an ‘imperium’. Implicit here is
the notion that the institution of law functions in terms of imperatives that
both represent a collective interest (even if not a general interest) and
that are normative rather than affective. In representing a collective interest
the passions or emotions of individuals, or even groups or sections of a
population, are therefore seen to be without significant influence on the
operations of law. Additionally, because it functions in terms of norms, law
offers little opportunity for the direct expression of emotions.
The Danish sociologist, Svend Ranulf, offered an appreciation of the
relationship between emotions and criminal law that is very different from
the one indicated above. The question Ranulf addressed was: what social
conditions are required for the advent of criminal law? He characterized
criminal law as a ‘disinterested tendency to inflict punishment’ (1964
[1938]: 2) and argued that such a tendency arises in societies in which there
is a developed lower middle class. It is because criminal law functions in
terms of societally imposed punishment, rather than a vengeful response to
injury by the direct victim of some transgression, that it is described as
a ‘disinterested’ tendency. The condition of the middle class that leads it
to promote the disinterested tendency to inflict punishment, according to
Ranulf, is the moral indignation that arises from its relations with the other
classes in the social structure.
Ranulf’s account of criminal law, then, holds that human emotions and
not their expulsion are central to an understanding of criminal law. There
is some precedence for this position in the history of sociology, as we shall
see. But the argument is most completely developed by Ranulf. The
importance of Ranulf’s treatment of criminal law is twofold in so far as it
is a unique demonstration of a significant corrective to the conventional
view that emotion has no place in the explanation of criminal law. There is
by now an extensive literature showing that emotions link social structure
on the one hand and social agency on the other (Kemper, 1978; Collins,
1981, 1990; Scheff, 1988, 1990; Barbalet, 1998). In the area of sociological
criminology Ranulf’s work is a singular source concerning the importance
of emotions in understanding the origins and character of criminal law.
Nevertheless, Ranulf’s contribution to these subjects is little known. Before
discussing Ranulf’s arguments, therefore, it will be necessary to begin with
a brief description of Ranulf’s work and its context that suggests why he is
so successfully ignored in the relevant literatures.
Theoretical Criminology 6(3)280

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT