freedom, human rights and crime, human rights violations, justice, law, philosophy

Crime and Human Rights (11): The Preconditions for Criminal Punishment

I know that the worst thing about crime is what happens to the victims of crimes, not what happens to convicted criminals. Still, I want to focus on the latter for a moment. Criminal punishment is almost always a limitation of the criminal’s human rights, so it is a legitimate area of concern, although perhaps not the most important one. Whether we put criminals in prison, kill them, flog them, cut off their hands or put their names and addresses on the internet, we limit some or even many of their human rights.

So, if we want to maintain a system of criminal punishment, and if we agree that people don’t lose their human rights simply because they commit a crime, then we have to formulate a justification of the limits we impose on the rights of criminals. When are such limits justified, and when are they arbitrary, excessive or dictatorial? I believe criminal punishment is morally justified if, and only if, at least the following 8 conditions are met simultaneously:

1. Criminal punishment is necessary for the protection of the rights of others

A particular punishment, involving very specific limitations of the rights of the convicted criminal, has to be necessary for the protection of the rights of others. No other goal can be served by criminal punishment, and no other means or punishments, less harmful to the rights of the criminal have the same effect on the rights of others.

Criminal punishment not intended to protect the rights of others is therefore unacceptable, as is criminal punishment which imposes harm on the criminal that goes beyond what is necessary for the protection of the rights of others. For example, putting someone in prison because she has a certain opinion, is unacceptable because this punishment doesn’t protect the rights of others. And putting someone in prison because she steals a newspaper is also unacceptable because this punishment goes beyond what is necessary to protect the property rights of others. Rights protection in this case can be achieved by other means which are less harmful to the rights of the criminal (a fine for instance).

So both the type of punishment and its severity have to be taken into account when judging whether the punishment is morally justified. Simple retribution, proportionality or lex talionis can, in some cases, satisfy this first condition of morally justified punishment, but only by accident. In many cases, you will not deliver a morally justified punishment when you think only in terms of retribution, proportionality or lex talionis because you won’t automatically consider the effect of the punishment on the rights of others.

For example, take the case of a jealous artist vandalizing the work of a rival. Lex talionis would recommend that the vandals art be also vandalized. However, this punishment may be proportional and adequate retribution, and the vandal will undoubtedly suffer from it like he made his rival suffer, but no one’s rights are protected in this way. On the contrary, if the vandal is a good artist the punishment may even violate the rights of large numbers of people.

A punishment should be designed in such a way that it protects the rights of the victims and possible victims of the criminal who is about to be punished. This is the case when incarceration of a sexual maniac will protect the rights of his victim (although not retroactively) and of possible future victims, and such a punishment does seem to be what is required while avoiding the imposition of excessive harm on the maniac. In other words, there isn’t a more lenient sentence available which would offer the same protections to the rights of others while imposing less restrictions on the rights of the maniac. And neither is the punishment too severe for the purpose it serves, namely the protection of the rights of others.

But these “others” are not only the victims or possible victims of the criminal. Punishment is also signaling: by showing possible maniacs what happens to actual maniacs, we want to deter crime. Deterrence, like punishment, also protects the rights of others, “others” meaning here not the victims or possible victims of an actual criminal but the possible victims of a possible criminal. There is room for deterrence, but only when the deterrent effect is real, in other words when it really helps to protect the rights of others. We should be careful with deterrence, because deterrence means the instrumentalization of human beings. When there is doubt about a deterrence effect, and when at the same time the proposed punishment is very harsh, we should avoid designing the punishment with deterrence in mind. For example, if a very high fine for shoplifting has been shown empirically to deter a high percentage of possible shoplifters, then it would be morally justified to impose such a high fine on a specific shoplifter, even if a much lower fine would suffice to protect the rights of the actual and possible victims of this specific shoplifter. So this is an exception to the rule stated a moment ago.

On the other hand, if it can be shown empirically that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is doubtful, then we should not impose that punishment on a specific criminal, except when it is necessary to protect the rights of the actual and possible victims of that specific criminal. But when is this necessary? Often if not always we can find a more lenient sentence which will offer the same protections to the rights of actual and possible victims of an actual criminal, while imposing less restrictions on the rights of the criminal (e.g. life without parole).

2. The criminal acted with free will

We should assume that people generally have free will. There doesn’t seem to be room for moral responsibility or criminal culpability without this assumption. There can’t be criminals in a world in which everything is governed by “blind” cause and effect. People have free will when they have the capacity to choose a course of action from among a set of alternatives. If a criminal’s will and choice of action are not decided by himself, we can hardly say that he’s responsible for his actions. Only if he could have acted differently can he be held responsible for his actual actions. Imagine a brainwashed spy being sent abroad by his totalitarian government in order to kill political opponents. This person couldn’t have acted differently and didn’t have the capacity to choose from among different courses of action. Hence he can’t be held responsible for his actions.

We should start from the general assumption that people normally act on the basis of free will, but if we find that this assumption doesn’t hold in a particular case, then either criminal punishment is not justified or the punishment should be less severe. People can be determined to will certain ends without having been brainwashed. A drug addict for example suffers from a compulsive and controlling desire and has lost his free will. Addiction impairs the will. If he acts on the basis of this compulsive desire and commits a crime along the way, it’s common to take the absence of free will into account when determining the severity of the punishment. Both external manipulation of our psychology and internal compulsions can force us to do things we don’t desire or choose to do, and they can even force us to desire or choose things we wouldn’t freely desire or choose. (Hypnosis can also be an example). In either case, we are not culpable, or at least the level of our culpability is reduced.

3. The criminal did not act because of “force majeure”

Force majeure is a term for an action that is caused by events or circumstances beyond the control of the agent. For example, someone kills another person because he was instructed to do so by gunmen holding his children hostage. Sometimes, there are external constraints on the range of options we have, and things beyond our control can force us to act (or not act) in a certain way.

This condition should be distinguished from free will. It’s not because some external causes force you to act in a certain way that you lose your free will. You act in a certain way but at the same time you don’t have to want to act in that way.

4. The criminal was aware of alternative courses of action and of the moral significance of those alternatives

For example, if a criminal was convinced that he had no alternative and had to commit the crime, then he may not be culpable, even if in reality there were alternatives. Imagine the same case of the father being forced to kill by gunmen holding his children hostage. Maybe there was an easy and safe way for the police to free the children. However, if the father was unaware of this and executed the demands of the gunmen without contacting the police, then he shouldn’t be found guilty of a crime.

However, the father may have been culpably unaware: reasonable people can agree that he should and could have been aware of the possibility to involve the police, but he failed to do everything possible to examine the alternatives. In that case, he should be found guilty.

5. The criminal acted with intent

If the consequences of an action were not intended by the agent, then either he is not culpable or his culpability is diminished. This 5th condition should be distinguished from free will: an action can be undertaken with free will but without intending all the consequences that occur. A woman who is not acting compulsively (who is not addicted for example), who is not forced by external powers to desire things she would normally not desire or to do things she doesn’t want to do, and who reasonably reflected on possible alternatives, acts in a chosen way. To her surprise, her actions lead to someone’s death. She didn’t intend this outcome, and hence she’s not culpable, or at least her culpability is reduced.

6. The criminal caused the crime

There should be no doubt about the causal link between the criminal’s actions and the crime. Let’s elaborate the previous example: the woman caused the death by hitting the victim with her car. The victim didn’t violate any traffic rules for pedestrians. The woman wasn’t speeding compulsively. She wasn’t under hypnosis or forced to hit the victim by gunmen threatening her children. And she wasn’t culpably unaware of the risk of driving a car in that particular street. Moreover, there’s some medical doubt as to the actual cause of death. It seems that the pedestrian was suffering from a heart condition and a heart attack caused the pedestrian to stumble on the road. Hence the woman driver isn’t culpable.

7. The criminal is found guilty after a fair trial

Only if the rules on the fairness of criminal trials are respected can we impose criminal punishment. A person accused of a crime should be able to use a defense lawyer to guarantee that the judge takes all the 6 previous preconditions into account when sentencing. The trial should be public so that we can all see that criminal punishment is imposed fairly. Etc.

8. The criminal is found guilty on the basis of proper laws

The laws which the criminal is supposed to have violated should be universal laws. In other words, they shouldn’t be targeted at the criminal specifically. The rule of law imposes this restriction. Laws that are not equally applicable to all, including the legislators, are not proper laws, but simply a disguised form of the rule of man. Other rules of legislation should also be respected (no retroactive laws etc.).


If both judges and legislators keep these 8 points in mind when deciding the type and severity of the punishment that has to be imposed for a particular crime and on a particular criminal, then we will, in all likelihood, be able to avoid some of the worst injustices in our current criminal justice system. We won’t have overpopulated prisons, we won’t incarcerate people for silly offenses or lock them up for years and years for a crime that merely requires a few months, and we won’t use capital punishment as often as we do now.


6 thoughts on “Crime and Human Rights (11): The Preconditions for Criminal Punishment

  1. Pingback: What’s the Use of Criminal Punishment? | P.a.p.-Blog

  2. Pingback: The Limits of the Law | P.a.p.-Blog | Human Rights Etc.

  3. Pingback: Types of Human Rights Violations | P.a.p.-Blog | Human Rights Etc.

  4. Pingback: The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains | P.a.p.-Blog, Human Rights Etc.

  5. Pingback: The Human Rights of Adolf Hitler | P.a.p.-Blog, Human Rights Etc.

  6. Pingback: Crime and Human Rights (17): A Criminal’s Human Rights, Some Q & A | P.a.p.-Blog, Human Rights Etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s