Justifying Coercion: The Problem of Punishment

Rex Martin

in A System of Rights

Published in print May 1997 | ISBN: 9780198292937
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191599811 | DOI:
 Justifying Coercion: The Problem of Punishment

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This chapter begins with a brief characterization of punishment under law. The central claim is then made that punishment would be justified in a system of civil rights if (1) it prevents or at least substantially deters violations of rights while at the same time being necessary to this particular task (either in that no alternative which altogether dispenses with punishment can do the job at all or that none can do it as well). Of course, we realize that punitive sanctions often infringe rights of the violator; accordingly, we must also require (drawing here on the notion of the competitive weight of rights) that (2) the right protected is not outweighed by the right infringed by sanction and that it cannot be substantially better protected by a sanction that infringes a right of roughly the same weight (or, of course, one of even lesser weight). Thus, the important grounds for punitive sanctions in a system of rights are: overall necessity (as in 1 above), compatibility with rights, and relative deterrent effectiveness (as in 2 above).

On these same grounds, a policy of not punishing the innocent, of punishing only adjudged violators, would be incorporated in the background institutions,in particular, the trial system, that served to admit people, upon determination of their guilt, into the practice of being punished.

Keywords: deterrence; justification; law; necessity; prevention; punishment; punitive sanctions; rights compatibility; trial system

Chapter.  16998 words. 

Subjects: Political Theory

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