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The Utility of Desert


Paul H. Robinson


University of Pennsylvania Law School

John M. Darley


Princeton University


Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 91, pp. 453-499, 1997

Abstract:     
The article takes up the debate between utility and desert as distributive principles for criminal liability and punishment and concludes that a utilitarian analysis that takes account of all costs and benefits will support the distribution of liability and punishment according to desert, or at least according to the principles of desert as perceived by the community. It reaches this conclusion after an examination of a variety of recent social science data. On the one hand, it finds the traditional utilitarian theories of deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation to have little effect in many instances. It finds instead that the real power to gain compliance with society's rules of prescribed conduct lies not in the threat or reality of official criminal sanction, but in the power of the intertwined forces of social and individual moral control. The networks of interpersonal relationships in which people find themselves, the social norms and prohibitions shared among those relationships and transmitted through those social networks, and the internalized representations of those norms and moral precepts are what cause people to obey the law. The law is not irrelevant to these social and personal forces. Criminal law, in particular, plays a central role in creating and maintaining the social consensus necessary for sustaining moral norms. In fact, in a society as diverse as ours, the criminal law may be the only society-wide mechanism that transcends cultural and ethnic differences. Thus, the criminal law's most important real world effect may be its ability to assist in the building, shaping, and maintaining of these norms and moral principles. It can contribute to and harness the compliance-producing power of interpersonal relationships and personal morality. The criminal law can have a second effect in gaining compliance with its commands. If it earns a reputation as a reliable statement of what the community, given sufficient information and time to reflect, would perceive as condemnable, people are more likely to defer to its commands as morally authoritative and as appropriate to follow in those borderline cases where the propriety of certain conduct is unsettled or ambiguous in the mind of the actor. The extent of the criminal law's effectiveness in both these respects - in facilitating and communicating societal consensus on what is and is not condemnable, and in gaining compliance in borderline cases through deference to its moral authority - is to a great extent dependent on the degree of moral credibility that the criminal law has achieved in the minds of the citizens governed by it. Thus, the criminal law's moral credibility is essential to effective crime control, and is enhanced if the distribution of criminal liability is perceived as doing justice, that is, if it assigns liability and punishment in ways that the community perceives as consistent with the community's principles of appropriate liability and punishment. Conversely, the system's moral credibility, and therefore its crime control effectiveness, is undermined by a distribution of liability that deviates from community perceptions of just desert.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 48

Keywords: desert, punishment

JEL Classification: k14

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Date posted: May 23, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H. and Darley, John M., The Utility of Desert. Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 91, pp. 453-499, 1997. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=10195 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.10195

Contact Information

Paul H. Robinson (Contact Author)
University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )
3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
John M. Darley
Princeton University ( email )
1-N-17 Green Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States
609-258-3000 (Phone)
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