Lee on Deontology and the Criminal Law

Youngjae Lee in CrimProf Blog, February 22, 2011

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Youngjae Lee (Fordham University School of Law) has posted two manuscripts on SSRN relating to deontology and criminal law. The first is Desert, Deontology, and Vengeance (Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 42, 2011). Here is the abstract:

In a series of recent writings, Paul Robinson has defended “empirical desert” as the way of deriving distributive principles for determining who should be punished and by how much. Desert is, of course, an idea with a long history, and its precise role in criminal law has been much debated. In addressing various criticisms of desert in criminal law, Robinson distinguishes empirical desert from what he calls “deontological desert” and “vengeful desert.” Robinson’s strategy, which I call “divide and deflect,” fights off various objections traditionally leveled against the use of desert in criminal law by arguing that most of those objections may be valid for “deontological” and “vengeful” desert but are not applicable to “empirical desert.” So, for instance, “vengeful desert” can be too harsh, may be based on anger and hatred, and give only vague guidance, and “deontological desert” judgments may be too contested to be useful for policy makers, but, Robinson claims, empirical desert suffers from no such defects. Robinson’s core claims – about the need to tie desert assessments close to ordinary intuitions and the substantial crime control benefits to be derived when the state can successfully command respect as a moral authority – are valid. However, Robinson’s “empirical desert” needs what he calls “vengeful desert” and “deontological desert” to succeed, and his attempts to make his proposal resistant to the usual anti-retributivist objections by jettisoning the latter two may in the end hurt his project more than help.

The second is Deontology, Political Morality, and the State (Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 8, 2011). Here is the abstract:

Sometimes the government makes a policy choice, and, as a result, innocent persons die. How should we morally assess such deaths? For instance, is the government’s choice of the reasonable doubt standard or its decision to restrict the death penalty to certain narrow categories responsible for deaths of innocents? If so, does the deontological norm against harming people dictate that the government loosen the evidentiary standard for conviction or widen the availability of capital punishment? This Article argues that the traditional distinctions between intending and foreseeing harm and between causing harm and allowing harm to occur are insufficient to absolve the state of its responsibility for such deaths. This Article also argues, however, that it is a mistake to conclude from this observation that the government may be morally required to loosen the evidentiary standard for conviction or to widen the availability of capital punishment. Once we fully understand the distinctive features of government as a moral agent, this Article argues, we will see that the government has obligations both to protect its people from crimes and respond to crimes on behalf of the people and to respect various constraints placed on its power, including desert-based limitations on punishment and standards of proof required for conviction. These obligations may conflict with one another, but that observation does not generate the conclusion that it is morally required to punish people with death or convict people with reduced standards of proof.