Shouldn't laws only stop one from harming other (socially, physically etc)? What is the purpose of other laws?

For example, if an individual takes drugs without causing harm to others - what gives the government the right to stop him?

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    I believe the question would be more useful if it was "Are there laws that don't relate to harming another?" or "Why does law XYZ exist which does not seem to prevent any harm?". As given now, it is strongly opinionated (i.e., expressing the believe that there indeed are laws like this) and leading to extremely opinionated answers.
    – AnoE
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 14:44
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    You've asked THREE very different questions. The answer to "Why are there laws that...?" is that laws are made by people. The answer to "What is the purpose of such laws?" is individual for each such law—ask the law's originator. The answer to "What gives the government the right...?" is: what gives the government any rights? Governments don't have rights. Only individuals can have rights. Governments are just an idea that people have.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 5:27
  • Is a philosophic or theoretical answer appropriate? Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 12:20
  • Using recreational drugs doesn't harm others (except when the user becomes a non-functioning and/or disruptive burden to society), but selling recreational drugs is a whole other proposition. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 22:14

7 Answers 7


There are three major arguments which are often brought up to justify it when societies decide to punish people for victimless crimes:

  1. The values of the society in general are considered the victim of the crime (e.g. criminalization of certain sexual acts between consenting adults)
  2. Society has the duty to protect individual citizens from harming themselves (e.g. prohibiting recreational drug use, mandating use of seatbelts)
  3. Society declares an act a crime because performing that act makes it more likely that the perpetrator will commit a more serious crime in the future (e.g. making gun ownership illegal to prevent homicides)

Whether or not these arguments are valid is more of a philosophical discussion.

In specific cases, there are also sometimes utilitarian arguments for or against certain policies against specific victimless crimes. To pick up the example of recreational drug use, one could argue about the economic damage caused by drug abuse and whether or not it justifies the restriction of liberties and the economical cost of enforcing them. But these only apply to specific examples and not to victimless crimes in general.

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    Might add a subcategory -- cost to the general public. In theory, if you can ban the use of a highly toxic hallucinogen, then you reduce the cost of medical followups, or state support of the now-indigent family after you die. This can be labelled "secondary harm to others," maybe. Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 12:33
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    @CarlWitthoft I think I covered this with the last paragraph.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 12:34
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    This is a perfectly fine answer, though it's mostly opinion (that said, the question is asking for opinions, so...+1)
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 14:11
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    Praeteritio: trotting out controversial examples, then excusing their mention by calling them philosophical controversies. And let's not conflate argumentative validity with soundness.
    – agc
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 4:44
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    #4 Conservation of resources: government boating safety programs are considerably more efficient and effective when people wear Personal Flotation Devices. Or, the low cost act of wearing a motorcycle helmet greatly decreases medical costs that are often passed on to society (eg. the ICU care for an uninsured cyclist who cracked his skull open).
    – Paulb
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 11:27

Laws defending acts that appear not to harm anyone exist for very different reasons. The first ones are cases of what Philippe describes as "The values of the society in general are considered the victim of the crime."

1. Laws that demonstrate power

For instance laws against expressing political opinions (in a peaceful, polite manner).

2. Laws that enforce identity

For instance laws that privilege a religion

3. Laws that prevent self harm

For instance defending the burka to prevent social isolation and inequal rights (imagine you have to defend yourself in court, in a burka while your opponent disposes of all possible non verbal expressions.)

4. Laws that prevent indirect damage

For instance, in a society were health care is based on solidarity, laws against smoking reduce the cost on health care for everyone.

Also, imposing a minimal wage prevents social dumping.

Remark: Criticising a laws defending acts that don't harm anyone is often a way to deny that harm

For instance laws that protect our environment


Many victimless crimes are crimes because they may lead to criminal acts on a person when a victim may have little ability to give consent. Assisted suicide is considered by some to be a victimless crime, but the problem is that suicide can be caused by mental illness and depression. Did the person have the ability to truly give consent or not? Depending on the method, is this suicide truly suicide or closer to manslaughter? Could this person have gotten help for their situation? We now don't know because one of the consenting parties is dead. That is one of the reasons why people think it is a good idea to keep assisted suicide illegal, even if it is done by a physician:

"patients might be subjected to PAS (physician assisted suicide) without their genuine consent" -"Vitalism Revitalized: Vulnerable Populations, Prejudice, and Physician-Assisted Death". The Hastings Center Report.

Allowing this crime to continue also sends a message - intentional or not - that suicide is a proper way to end your problems. Any depressed adult or child could see legal assisted suicide as society endorsing this tactic as a way to end your misery and in a society where suicide has gone up by 35% in 20 years, the last thing we need is more people killing themselves and seeing it as endorsed by the government.

Controlling for various socioeconomic factors, unobservable state and year effects, and state-specific linear trends, we found that legalizing PAS was associated with a 6.3% (95% confidence interval 2.70%-9.9%) increase in total suicides (including assisted suicides) -How Does Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide Affect Rates of Suicide?, South Medical Journal

Restaurants and other businesses are regulated because many businesses before and after the FDA would operate with sub-par food that could get you sick or included ingredients you didn't want in your food. Is it consensual to eat food from an establishment if they include ingredients not listed in the menu or intentionally leave out information about how clean their kitchen is? So regulating businesses and making sure they don't do false advertising or provide 'food' that is not safe due to using bad/unregulated ingredients is paramount, especially if you don't want to end up like China with their lack of proper food regulation:

"Major sources of food poisoning in China include pathogenic microorganisms, toxic animals and plants entering the food supply, and chemical contamination. Meanwhile, two growing food safety issues are illegal additives and contamination of the food supply by toxic industrial waste." - Food Supply and Food Safety Issues in China

Also, as someone mentioned above, some companies and people call crimes victimless because it can remove responsibility. Some companies called ignoring environmental regulations and polluting to be a 'victimless crime'. In this case, this crime is only considered 'victimless' so certain parties don't have to take responsibility for the damage said crime can actually cause.

Despite this growing awareness, environmental crimes often fail to prompt the required response by governments, the enforcement community and the public. Often perceived as “victimless”, environmental crimes do not always produce an immediate consequence. - Victims of Environmental Crime – Mapping the Issues by The International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy


Why are there laws for victimless 'crimes'?

Laws can stop people from causing harm even before there is a victim.

Let's take drunk driving, without accident. It doesn't have any victim, yet banning drunk driving isn't the least bit controversial (the one controversy here is about how drunk is "drunk"), because it clearly reduces the number of traffic fatalities.

Similarly, if I shoot someone and miss, I didn't do them any harm. Still, there are laws against shooting at people.

What is the purpose of other laws?

The list is nearly open ended.

  • Licenses, such as driving licenses. We need laws that define what they are, who can hand them out, what training we require for people who hand out licenses, etc.
  • Laws that allow people to lend money to each other and have means to get the money back.
  • Laws that define what money is.
  • Laws that deal with passing on property rights, for example in case of death or divorce.
  • Laws that deal with disputes.
  • Laws that deal with liability.
  • Laws that help people make better decisions (mandatory retirement plans and mandatory health care are quite common in most developed countries)
  • Laws that deal with what happens once a law is broken.
  • Laws that define how to read a law.
  • ...

What gives the government the right to stop him?

I'd go with "tradition", and "people being used to it".

  • Didn't mean to insult you, in all seriousness. But I don't understand your answer at all. You lost me with the analogy of running someone over with a car, which clearly isn't a harmless act (crime or not). Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 19:58
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    @dan-klasson Point 2 and 3 will get you fined in many places of the world, and point 2 can also get you significant jail time in many jurisdictions (usually depending on who's considered to be at fault).
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 20:51
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    Actually, if you are not in violation of any traffic rules, then running someone over without intent is not a crime. It's called an accident. So are you German or what? Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 21:06
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    @Chloe No it should be illegal. Driving drunk means you intentionally engaged in an action that could potentially hurt others. It is like texting while driving: you knew this action would prevent you from driving properly, but you did it anyway knowing it could hurt another person. It is punishing someone for engaging in risky behavior and you are always more dangerous when you drive drunk, even if you drive 4 times slower (& that assumes the drunk person will drive slower while drinking, which they don't: telegraph.co.uk/cars/driving-for-less/…)
    – Tyler Mc
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 17:10
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    @dan-klasson No, running someone over is still a crime, it is called manslaughter (google.com/…)
    – Tyler Mc
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 17:17

American law is derivative of american/puritanical protestantism. Sins are moral transgressions. "Victimless" crimes can be linked to puritanical constraints on excess. The weaving of religious constraints into nation state laws is not only reflected in Anglo/American culture but is equally apparent in Islamic and Asian culture. Its particular significance to America is because America ostensibly champions religious tolerance. Rhetoric aside, periodically renewed religious fundamentalism in America spawned a raison d'être for prosecution of gambling, prostitution, and recreational drug use. Many of the cultural problems of today can be traced to puritanical intolerance to those who do not conform to religious pretexts. Irrespective of the America's rhetoric of tolerance, there is nothing but puritanical intolerance when it comes to drugs, sex, and gambling. Russel Mead has touched upon this but I feel that America as a whole is reluctant to admit to the religious hypocrisy rooted in these "victimless" crime laws.


Why are there laws for victimless 'crimes'?

It is because victims of those "victimless" crimes are defined out of their victimhood.

Think about those homeowners in a neighborhood infested with drug dealers; kids in families broken up because of prostitution; beautiful lives lost to alcoholism; countless scientists or artists that we don't get to have because of drug abuses; taxpayers who got sucked dry by corrupt politicians ...

They / we are not victims because some people elected turn their eyes away, for whatever reasons.

Shouldn't laws only stop one from harming other (socially, physically etc)?

Yes. google "standing".

What is the purpose of other laws?

To protect those who cannot protect themselves.

  • There are already laws against corrupt politicians. Alcohol is not illegal - and when it was, it caused much violence, and more corrupt politicians.
    – Chloe
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 19:34
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    @Chloe Alcohol is legal, But we still have laws to restrict its use. You can't give it to minors and drunk driving is still considered a big no no. Also you now need a license to distribute alcohol so people can be sure that what you're selling is not dangerous ( many people used to sell alcohol that was tainted or had a very high proof without warning customers)
    – Tyler Mc
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 17:40

Victimless crimes are victimless under and only under libertarian rules.

However, most of those crimes have "victims". The victims are not what people often said.

Let me give you an example.

Say you are selling cakes.

Then someone else sell cakes at cheaper price than you.

Is that victimless?

According to libertarian yes.

But there is a victim. You lost sales because of it.

Do you have "right" not to lost sales? In most cases no. In most cases there is no big reason for societies to prevent others from competing against you.

So you made something up. You said the competitors' cakes are poisonous, dangerous, bad, that no body would consensually buy things.

Would that convince anyone?

Could be.

Let's talk about prostitution. We all wants mates. We offer our self in mating market and try to get higher spec mates.

Imagine some super rich guys just pay up many women to mate with him instead? Is it victimless? It is. In libertarian sense.

But most men that are not actually Brad Pitt would see that the quality of their mates are greatly reduced because of this. In most democratic countries there are "ideas" that prostitution is harmful for women, that no women consent to it, bla bla bla,.... And MOST MEN believe it because they are benefited by those idea. Those ideas justify prohibiting of prostitution.

Most women are indeed "harmed" by porn. No. Their right is not harmed in anyway. Their interests are. Why would men pay attention to ugly girls if they can watch hot JAV stars doing more. Porn greatly reduce rape. It also greatly reduce marriage and so on. Most women have a harder time finding guys thanks to porn.

Then what? Those ugly women will cry that porn hurt...... the porn star. No. No body complains because something hurt others. If anything humans are selfish. People complain because they are hurt. But they want to maintain image that they are protecting others.

Or imagine drugs. Say some government officials got tons of kickback from drug dealers he close his eyes on. Say drugs are legal. Cops are happy. Drug dealers are happy.

Are there any victim if drugs are legal. Obviously. When drugs are legal drug dealers' money profit will drop. So most drug dealers will want drugs to be as illegal as possible.

The list can go on.

It seems to me, every time something can be done better under free market, somebody will scream that it is not victimless under some ridiculous reason. When something can be produced cheaply and can be sold a lot everyone would want to control it.

If the can convince ignorance majority to believe their bullshit then the act becomes victimless crime.

Quite often victimless crimes are told that they are so bad that they should be prohibited.

Quite often, the victimless crimes are product that are so good that left to free market they will obliterate competitors.

  • Which statement above isn't obvious? That porn hurt ugly women? Of course. That porn actually hurt no one's right? Of course. In most cases at least.
    – user4951
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 2:09
  • In general the idea here makes sense but I wonder why you had to choose prostitution and porn specifically. Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 10:26
  • It seems that the whole thing is just common sense. However, if there is any part of this that you don't like or have doubts, please tell me and I will find sources. Prostitution and porn are some of the most obvious samples. Actually things like drugs can also be used as samples. A good cartel would work with government prohibiting drugs. Polices make money. Basically you enjoying drug without paying cops hurt cops interests.
    – user4951
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 3:30

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