If You Ain't in Prison, You Just Got Lucky: Luck, Culpability, and the Retributivist Justification of Punishment
Kenneth Einar Himma
University of Washington - School of Law
December 30, 2013
Jurisprudentia, vol. 1, no. 1 (2014) Forthcoming
Thomas Nagel argues that the pervasive role that luck plays in conditioning behavior seems inconsistent with ordinary views about moral accountability and culpability. As many criminal justice practices seem to rely on these ordinary views, the pervasiveness of luck also seems inconsistent with the legitimacy of a number of criminal law practices. For example, the claim that people do not have direct control over the consequences of their acts and hence that the consequences of an act are conditioned by luck calls into question the legitimacy of the traditional practice of punishing unsuccessful attempts less severely than successful attempts; if the only difference between a successful and unsuccessful attempt is a matter of luck, then there can be no difference, other things being equal, in culpability between the two. In this essay, I argue that the pervasive role that luck plays in conditioning a person’s acts calls into question the viability of retributivist justifications of punishment, which hold that punishment is justified insofar as deserved. A person is not culpable or deserving of punishment, according to ordinary views, for events beyond her control. But if the factors conditioning an agent’s act are all matters of luck beyond the agent’s control, then she is not deserving of punishment for the act. The pervasiveness of such luck seems inconsistent with retributivism and threatens not only differential punishment for successful and unsuccessful attempts. More significantly, it calls into question the very legitimacy of punishment itself. The problem of luck goes well beyond its implications for the law of attempts.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 68
Keywords: punishment, legitimacy, luck, moral luck, legal luck, retributivism
Date posted: December 31, 2013 ; Last revised: January 1, 2014
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