"On the State's Exclusive Right to Punish"

Michigan Law Authors
Publish Date
Law and Philosophy
Publication Type
Journal Article

In a characteristically iconoclastic essay, ‘‘Does the State Have a Monopoly to Punish Crime?’’, Douglas Husak argues that the state’s moral right to punish crime is all but self-evident while its supposed monopoly on punishment is a fiction. Husak draws this bracing conclusion from a modest, quasi-Lockean premise – that persons and other entities have a right to impose stigmatizing deprivations on those who wrong them. This premise evokes John Locke’s far stronger claim that everyone enjoys a natural right to inflict potentially severe sanctions on any wrongdoer. The quasi-Lockean premise also evokes the familiar idea that all criminal wrongdoing is an attack on the broader community, and that law-breakers consequently owe a debt to society that they can repay through punishment. In this essay, I argue that the inferences Husak draws from the quasi- Lockean premise are unsound, but for reasons that reveal important lessons about the state’s right to punish crime and about the limits of what we can extract from the venerable idea that a central victim of criminal wrongdoing is the community as a whole. In Part II, I argue that the quasi-Lockean premise does not ground the state’s right to punish the kind of wrongs traditionally thought central to the criminal law, namely, wrongs perpetrated on individual human victims. In Part III, I answer Husak’s implicit challenge to describe a kind of stigmatizing deprivation – a kind of punishment – that the state alone has a right to inflict. I suggest that no entity but the state may inflict sanctions that constitute prima facie invasions of moral rights.

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