Negligence and Culpability: Reflections on Alexander and Ferzan

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Philosophers of criminal punishment disagree about whether infliction of punishment for negligence can be morally justified. One contending view holds that it cannot be because punishment requires culpability and culpability requires, at a minimum, advertence to the facts that make one’s conduct wrongful. Larry Alexander and Kim Ferzan are prominent champions of this position. This essay challenges that view and their arguments for it. Invoking a conceptual distinction between an agent’s being blameworthy for an act and their deserving punishment (or suffering) for that act, it explains that an agent can be blameworthy for negligent conduct, and thus liable to reasonable blaming practices, even if negligence is not culpable, hence not sufficient to ground negative desert. Turning from conceptual inquiry to substantive questions of political morality, it then argues that a faulty actor’s lack of culpability does not render them immune from just punishment, but does significantly limit the severity of punishment that may be inflicted, for punishment should not be disproportionately severe relative to an agent’s culpability in relation to wrongdoing.


Law & philosophy, criminal justice, desert, punishment, severity, proportionality, fault, blame, culpability, criminal liability, responsibility-based constraint, wrongdoing, negligence, Ferzander

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Criminal Law & Philosophy