UCL Faculty of Laws


The Metric of Punishment Severity

30 January 2018, 4:00 pm–6:00 pm

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UCL Laws


UCL School of Public Policy, The Council Room, 29-30 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9QU

Speaker: Professor Douglas Husak (Rutgers University)
Series: Institute of Law, Political Science and Philosophy

About the paper:

The principle of proportionality, a cornerstone of retributive penal philosophy, seemingly requires (cereris paribus) the severity of the punishments imposed to be a function of the seriousness of the crimes that are committed. This principle cannot be applied unless we have a metric or common denominator to assess whether two impositions of punishment are equal or unequal in severity. To do so, we must decide whether the metric of severity is wholly objective or involves an essential reference to the psychological response of the persons who are punished. Even when this issue is resolved, it seems that no single measure of punishment severity exists. Instead, all we might be able to say is that a given instance of punishment is more severe along one dimension and less severe along another, with no means to specify which is more or less severe all-things-considered. This conclusion has potentially grave implications for the adequacy of a retributive theory of punishment that takes desert and proportionality as central. No solution is readily available without a substantial retreat from ideal theory. Perhaps the best way to minimize the worries is to adopt a deflationary role for desert in a theory of punishment rather than to abandon retributivism and proportionality altogether.

About the author:

Douglas Husak is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He received his Ph.D. and J.D. from Ohio State University in 1976 and first came to Rutgers in 1977. He has visited or taught at nine different philosophy departments or law schools, and is currently a visitor at the UCL Faculty of Laws. His primary research projects are in the intersection of moral philosophy and criminal law, with a special interest in drug policy. He is the author of, among many works, Drugs and Rights (Cambridge, 1992); Overcriminalization (Oxford, 2008); Philosophy of Criminal Law: Selected Essays (2010); and, most recently, Ignorance of Law (Oxford, 2016). He is editor-in-chief of Criminal Law and Philosophy.

About the Institute:

The Institute brings together political and legal theorists from LawPolitical Science and Philosophy and organises regular colloquia in terms 2 and 3.

Note that the total time will be devoted to discussion of the paper. To receive the paper, please email the UCL Laws events team a week prior to the session.

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