Legal Perfectionism and the Benefit Principles

Joel Feinberg

in The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law Volume 4: Harmless Wrongdoing

Published in print August 1990 | ISBN: 9780195064704
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199833207 | DOI:
Legal Perfectionism and the Benefit Principles

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A possible liberty‐limiting principle that Feinberg targets is legal perfectionism, according to which a state should promote the virtues and so may legitimately impose criminal prohibitions that will improve citizens’ characters. Feinberg defines character as the set of dispositions to act or feel in certain ways: commendable dispositions are excellences or virtues and blameworthy dispositions are flaws or defects. He opposes perfectionism as a form of moralistic paternalism that restricts liberty from the need to confer on the individual the benefit of a better character. Turning to the divergence in the views of B.F. Skinner and John Stuart Mill on character, Feinberg shows that, although they both reject legal perfectionism, Skinner holds that personal excellence doesn’t much matter and Mill claims that good character matters, but the law has a very limited role to play in realizing it. Mill's outlook resembles Feinberg's more complicated position, and values human liberty as an essential prerequisite for personal virtue. Other topics Feinberg considers here include: the educative function of law, ethical relativism, and the moral education of the theory of punishment.

Keywords: character; defect; disposition; liberty; Mill; perfectionism; punishment; relativism; Skinner; virtue

Chapter.  20189 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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