Bryan Caplan  

Why Do Serial Killers Vastly Outnumber Vigilantes?

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Serial killers are, contrary to movies and television, incredibly rare. Still, Wikipedia lists well over a hundred convicted serial killers. In contrast, vigilantes (a la the fictional Dexter) are almost non-existent. How many can you name, besides Bernard Goetz, who was only involved in a single shoot-out?

Intuitively, it seems like there would be far more vigilantes than serial killers. Both give people an opportunity to feel important and powerful, and the thrill of unleashing violent impulses. But vigilantes get the added pleasure of playing hero, and knowing that a lot of people secretly admire them. Furthermore, you would think that there are a lot of aggressive, risk-taking, frustrated guys in law enforcement would desperately want to correct a few of "the system's mistakes" after-hours. And wait, there's more - victims and the relatives of victims who feel a need to balance the cosmic scales are another promising pool of potential vigilantes.

What's going on? My best guess is that there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as we usually understand it) and obedience to authority. Moral philosophy notwithstanding, people who care about justice also usually believe that they have an obligation to respect the law and the system. As a result, people eager to doll out justice in the name of a "higher law" are vanishingly rare.

Anyone got a better explanation?


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

I haven't studied their psychology in any detail, but perhaps serial killers are less concerned with getting caught, either because they secretly want the attention, or they simply don't care about the consequences and so behave more recklessly than average.

Vigilantes may lack these traits.

That's just thrown out--I know no serial killers nor vigilantes, so have nothing to base this on.

Also, mention Frank Castle.

jojo writes:

Vigilantes provide a positive externality so produce too little justice. The benefits to a serial killer are private and the costs are imposed on others, so they are overprovided.

James D. Miller writes:

It's much easier to be a serial killer than a serial vigilante because serial killers are willing to kill anyone while serial vigilantes have to somehow locate evil people not already in jail.

SheetWise writes:

It would seem that a serial killer requires a lack of conscience (sociopath/psychopath) to do their job.

On the other hand, conscience would be a requirement to even consider becoming a vigilante. And your conscience would then tell you not to do it.

8 writes:

Have you read Without Remorse by Tom Clancy? You'd probably enjoy it, it has a serial killer as the hero.

I think the information problem and fear of detection is huge. Police watch suspects or put them in jail. The vigilante wants to target people who get away with murder. Only someone close to the crime has this information. If they are moral, they will tell the police. What's left are murders by criminals who think an associate has crossed the line. The police do not know the victim was a murderer and the vigilantism is undetected unless the vigilante is captured.

An amoral vigilante has other considerations. He could easily target drug dealers who work on the street. However, criminals usually have guns, so it's risky. Second, the victim's friends won't involve the police. Serial killers go to jail, vigilantes get killed.

Alex J. writes:

Of course, there were the original vigilance committees. I couldn't name any members though.

I think you have to be especially even-tempered and rational to follow the chain of logic that leads you to come to the conclusion that caring about justice doesn't go along with respecting the system. So, the sort of people who come to that conclusion are relatively unlikely to be strongly motivated by revenge.

Also, that sort of person is likely to be an intellectual ill-suited in various ways for becoming a vigilante.

Timothy McVeigh might count, but I think he saw himself as at war with the federal government (or at least the BATF) rather than "punishing" specific criminal members.

Carl Drega also might count, but likewise, he might more accurately be called a "rebel" than a vigilante.

After citing those two examples, it occurs to me that the police and the justice system in general tend to go after even Goetz-type vigilantes with, ahem, greater than normal effort. If you went around thrashing muggers, I think you'd have more to worry about from the police than the muggers would. So, would-be vigilantes face a relatively high disincentive from the police.

Oh, and the justice system seems to be not too bad when it comes to prosecuting serious real crimes. (Relatives of the later victims of the green river serial killer, might disagree. ) The problem is the time and energy they put into prosecuting phoney crimes. So in the sense that the police do a reasonably good job of going after street crime, there's not much reason to become a vigilante.

If one gang member seeks revenge against a member of another gang member who has committed a real unprovoked crime against the first, is that a vigilante action? He surely wouldn't go to the police, but I don't think most people would call him a vigilante.

I recall an episode of the Sopranos where Tony contemplated killing a local high school teacher who was sleeping with one of his students. Dr. Melfi, who usually has a don't ask don't tell policy regarding Tony's crime was indignant and berated him into not doing it. "What gives you the right?" yadda yadda. Well what does? What gives anybody the right to seek redress?

Johan writes:

Maybe vigilantes get caught less. Maybe the police don't investigate murders of pedophiles and drug dealers as thoroughly as other crimes.

David Robinson writes:

"Also, mention Frank Castle."

He might prefer not to generalize based on fictional evidence.

Personally, I've been hoping for the appearance of at least one "superhero" in real life. It seems to me that you'd need a confluence of four qualities to become a superhero:

A)Great physical shape
B)Wealthy
C)Intelligent
D)Willing to run around in a costume fighting crime

I'm guessing that D tends to be the limiting factor- very few people that fit the criteria A, B and C would be courageous (immature) enough to wear a costume, give themselves a silly name, and fight crime. (The problem also might be a shortage of supervillians- tracking down drug dealers and prowling alleyways looking for muggers might be too much trouble for any aspiring superhero).

stan writes:

Re-read "Crime and Punishment" for the answer. Why do we not have more Napoleons in society? There is likely a misunderstanding of Napoleon...

Mason writes:

"My best guess is that there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as we usually understand it) and obedience to authority."

I'd say the greater correlation is between moral virtue and repulsion at violence, combining this and obedience to authority probably produces the zero vigilantes we see.

Bill Kruse writes:

I'm sure the Unabomber fancied himself as a sort of vigilante (even though he wouldn't use that word) and there were plenty who sympathized w him (some, like The Nation, not so secretly, either). Then, there are PETA and ALF, etc., who, even if not murderers, do things that can get people killed. Anti-SUV types, anti-abortion types, too. Most of these people have no problem w taking the lives of others if it serves their sense of "justice." There are LOADS of such quasi-vigilantes out there.

Maniakes writes:

Maybe almost everyone with the temperment to be a vigilante instead joins a law enforcement agency or the military, so they can fight evildoers with the resources and the authority of the state working with them instead of against them.

Stan writes:

If you've never seen "Boondock Saints", it's a great movie where vigilante Catholic Brothers get their start in Boston. Willem Defoe is great in this.

Nat Almirall writes:

Perhaps the victims have something to do with it as well. Edmund Kemper was well over 6' and weighed about 300 pounds, yet his victims were college girls and hitch-hikers. Bernie Goetz was much smaller and took on four men almost in their 20s.

The risks of being a vigilante seem far greater -- especially since they seek out dangerous people.

I agree with James Miller. If you wanted to be a Vigilante, how would you start? You'd have to do your own detective work, which would be really difficult without a crime lab and no badge to get people to talk to you.

James A. Donald writes:

Vigilantes are quite common, they just don't give interviews. I speak from personal knowledge. If a vigilante does not get caught by the cops.

Matt writes:

Serial killers are hard to find, so the vigilante job can be frustrating.

Bob Knaus writes:

It's a math thing.

Anyone with the proper mindset can be a serial killer, because there is no shortage of potential victims. But, in spite of what you might think from media coverage, it's incredibly difficult to be at the scene of a crime ready to dispense justice.

I lived in Homestead, FL when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. You may recall the devastation and looting. My office manager was married to a former Navy Seal. He stayed up all night long for several nights with his laser-guided gun, hoping to shoot a looter. He was in a good neighborhood for it, too. Never saw one.

Similarly, ask a policeman how often they come across a violent crime in progress while on routine patrol. It just doesn't happen that often. If paid professionals seldom get the opportunity to right wrongs, guns a-blazing, how often should we expect free-lancers to do so?

DrObviouSo writes:

Question: How do you know there are fewer vigilantes than serial killers? How do you define vigilantes?

I know of two cases of vigilantyism from my life. In one, a friend got into a fight with someone over a missing wallet, and my friend ended up hurting the guy. His three brothers came to do the same to my friend, who happens to carry a gun with him, so nothing came of it.

In another case, a man regularly abused his daughter. The daughter's boyfriend "accidentally" pushed him down three flights of stairs.

Are these people vigilantes? How would you track them?

Michael Sullivan writes:

I would suppose that an awful lot of serial killers have fancied themselves as vigilantes. Most of just don't share, say, jack the ripper's moral conviction that random women deserve the death penalty merely for the unspeakable crime of existing.

When a potential vigilante's moral intuitions mostly align with the public's, then as others have mentioned, the opportunity exists to help exact vengeance without fear of legal or social reprisals by joining any number of organizations, as others have mentioned. This has to have much better expectation of accomplishing desired results.

Biomed Tim writes:

"It seems to me that you'd need a confluence of four qualities to become a superhero:

A)Great physical shape
B)Wealthy
C)Intelligent
D)Willing to run around in a costume fighting crime"

I definitely have D covered, and maybe even C, possibly A. If someone can provide B please call.

Curt Doolittle writes:

RE: "My best guess is that there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as we usually understand it) and obedience to authority."

I dont think that's it. In fact, there is probably no correlation between moral virtue and obedience to authority, because there is no correlation between moral virtue and the edicts of authority. Especially if you mean authority expressed as laws. If anything, obedience to authority is simply fear and there is nothing moral about it. Moral virtue is a choice that one makes independent of the charter of authority, and certainly independent of fear, or it is not a moral choice but a practical one. If one lives under the presumption that legal codes are moral, I suppose one could make that argument but I would find it quite easy to show it false in history. And in any civilization that easily enacts laws, quite demonstrably immoral, even, and perhaps especially, in democratic ones.

Matthew writes:

I think the problem is that you haven't defined your terms. I have a good idea of what a serial killer is. But what do you mean by vigilante? If I trip a mugger as he flees from the scene of the crime, am I a vigilante? If so, then there are a lot of vigilantes. Their actions do not hit the major media simply because the incidents remain minor due to their actions.

Or are vigilante's only concerned with major felonies (rape, murder and the like)? If so, the vigilantism would be rare as it takes a fair amount of resources to do detective work. Also, despite the occasional grousing, there is a high level of trust in the police and the judiciary to do their jobs. Organized vigilantism seems to arise when there is little to no trust in the government to do its job. Spontaneous acts of revenge seem to occur when whatever punishment is meted out seems disproportionate to the crime committed.

Just spitballin' here.

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