Rethinking The Ends of Harm

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In The Ends of Harm, Victor Tadros claims that the general justifying aim of the criminal law should be general deterrence. He also takes seriously that we cannot use people as a means, and thus he argues that we may only punish people in the name of general deterrence who have a ‘duty’ to suffer. Tadros claims that this duty arises as follows: An offender initially has a duty not to harm the victim. If the offender violates that duty, the offender still has a duty to stop the harm from occurring (so that, for example, an offender would have to jump in front of his own bullet). And if the harm does occur, then the offender has a duty to rectify that harm. This duty to rectify, argues Tadros, requires the defendant not only to compensate the victim but also to protect the victim to the extent that he would have been able to have been harmed to prevent the threat from occurring. Tadros further advances intricate arguments for why the state may therefore punish the offender to protect other potential victims to the extent of the offender’s duty to rectify. This symposium contribution seeks to explore three problems with Tadros’ analysis, ultimately arguing that Tadros’ theory fails on its own terms. First, attempts present a substantial problem for Tadros’ regime because attempts do not give rise to duties to prevent harm because there is no harm to be prevented. Tadros’ attempt to account for attempts, as completed offenses of diversions of security resources, ultimately leads to punishments that bear little resemblance to the crime attempted. Such a wildly counterintuitive result creates problems for a regime premised on general deterrence, which must be understood and respected. Second, Tadros’ regime will often exempt the rich from suffering criminal punishment. Tadros claims that duties to prevent harms from occurring (by jumping in front of bullets) are only enforceable when compensation will be inadequate. However, affluent offenders may be able to fully compensate. Moreover, since the scope of the duty to suffer will be determined by what remains of the duty after the victim is compensated, affluent offenders will be able to compensate more and thereby suffer less. Again, the actual sentences will thereby bear little resemblance to the rationale for criminalization, thus threatening the deterrent message of the law. Moreover, a system that exacerbates distributive inequalities will not achieve public respect. Third, Tadros cannot justify taking the duty that the defendant owes to the victim and forcing the victim to transfer this asset to the state. In his quest to articulate a theory that does not impermissibly use defendants, he ultimately endorses a theory that impermissibly uses their victims. He thus fails to achieve the very goal he sets for himself, which is to achieve general deterrence without impermissibly using anyone.


Good thing, crime prevention, Potential victim, criminal punishment, general deterrence

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Law & Philosophy