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Retributivism, Punishment


Criminal Law


Punishing a person based on low unconditional credence in their deservingness to be punished is consistent with retributivist deontological principles. Negative retributivism absolutely prohibits the intentional or knowing infliction of undeserved harm on individuals identified as undeserving, not the intentional or knowing infliction of risks of undeserved harm on individuals. Meanwhile, the knowing infliction of undeserved harm on some unidentified individuals generates not overriding reasons against punishment, but pro tanto reasons against punishment that are to be weighed against other non-overriding reasons for punishment like crime prevention. The upshot is that uncertainty regarding any identified person’s deservingness to be punished does not entail that punishment is generally impermissible if negative retributivism is true. One might be misled into thinking that impossibly high levels of unconditional credence in individual desert claims is morally required by failing to distinguish our actual criminal law practices, which are extremely harsh and unjustifiable, from criminal law as it ought to be.


This paper predates the author's affiliation with Cornell Law School.

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