Why Criminal Harms Matter: Plato's Abiding Insight in the Laws

Criminal Law and Philosophy, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 307-326, April 2007

Posted: 23 Aug 2007

See all articles by Peter K. Westen

Peter K. Westen

University of Michigan Law School


Commentators have contested the role of resulting harm in criminal law since the time of Plato. Unfortunately, they have neglected what may be not only the best discussion of the issue, but also the first - namely, Plato's one-paragraph discussion in the "Laws." Plato's discussion succeeds in reconciling two, seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints that till now have been in stalemate. Thus, Plato reconciles the view, that an offender's desert is solely a function of his subjective willingness to act in disregard of the legitimate interests of others, with the view that criminal sentences can appropriately be made to depend upon how indignant, angry, and upset society is at an offender based upon the results of his culpable conduct. In doing so, Plato casts light on retributive theories of punishment by suggesting that an adjudicator can be committed to retribution and yet rightly believe that it is inappropriate to give an offender the full punishment he deserves. He also lays a basis for the view that causation, rather being predicates for the just punishment of offenders toward whom the public is intuitively angry for harm, is the consequence of the public's being intuitively angry at offenders for harm.

Keywords: Punishment, Harm, Culpability

Suggested Citation

Westen, Peter K., Why Criminal Harms Matter: Plato's Abiding Insight in the Laws. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1008965

Peter K. Westen (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

3178 South Hall
701 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-3091
United States
505 577-2855 (Phone)
505 992-6885 (Fax)

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