Department of Political Science


POLS0030 The Ethics of Crime and Punishment

Course Code: POLS0030 (Previous name POLS0030 Justice and Public Policy)

Course Tutor: Dr Jeffery Howard (Department of Political Science)

Length: One Term (Autumn Term)

Teaching: 20 contact hours

Assessment: One 750 word podcast (5 minutes) and 2500 word podcast (17 minutes) (20%/80%)

Credits: 15 credits, 4 (US), 7.5 (ECTS) 

Level: L6 (Advanced)


About this course

This module is designed for second and third-year students. Prerequisite: must acquire permission of instructor before enrolling, to confirm prior coursework in political theory. 

The module investigates a wide array of philosophical questions about the moral principles that should govern our criminal justice systems. We will begin by investigating the purpose of criminalisation itself, assessing the kind of conduct that should or should not be criminalised. We continue that inquiry by examining the leading theories of criminal punishment and their moral implications for contemporary penal practice, inspecting retributive, deterrent, communicative, rehabilitative, and incapacitative approaches. Then, we will address a series of concrete policy questions, such as whether execution could ever be justified, whether we ought to support the movement for prison abolition, and whether prisoners should be deprived of voting rights. And we will question whether existing unjust states have the authority to punish victims of their own injustice who commit crime, and what modes of resisting unjustified punishment might be morally acceptable. 

Each week, we will read and argue with each other about important work in contemporary political, moral, and legal philosophy, applying what we learn to pressing political controversies. By the end of the module, students will be able to explain and appraise the arguments on different sides of a wide range of controversial moral debates about crime and punishment. The module’s further objectives are to develop students’ capacities for critical reasoning: for understanding and explaining arguments, identifying weaknesses and articulating objections to arguments, and offering constructive criticism about how to make arguments better. The module will also develop students’ skills in oral argumentation, strengthening their capacities to articulate their positions on complicated questions and defend them with confidence in front of their colleagues.