The Harm Principle vs. Kantian Criteria for Ensuring Fair, Principled and Just Criminalisation

Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 66, 2008

34 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2008 Last revised: 24 Nov 2013

Date Written: November 12, 2008


In this paper, I consider Ripstein and Dan-Cohen's critiques of the 'harm principle'. Ripstein and Dan-Cohen have asserted that the harm principle should be jettisoned, because it allegedly fails to provide a rationale for criminalising certain harmless wrongs that ought to be criminalised. They argue that Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative and his concept of 'external freedom' are better equipped for ensuring that criminalisation decisions meet the requirements of fairness. Per contra, I assert that Kant's deontological theory is about identifying morally wrongful and rightful conduct: it does not tell the legislature which of those wrongs justify a criminal law response in accordance with the requirements of fairness and justice. Some wrongdoers deserve censure and the stigma that results from criminalisation, but others do not. Kant's deontological theory does not limit the scope of the criminal law merely to those wrongs that deserve a criminal law response. Fair and principled criminalisation requires more than mere wrongdoing. I assert that it is only fair to criminalise wrongs when further normative reasons can be invoked to justify the use of the criminal law as a means for deterring the unwanted conduct. While 'harm to others' is not the only normative reason that can be used to demonstrate that it is fair to criminalise a given act, it is the justification that has the greatest reach. It would not be fair to criminalise mere wrongdoing (that is, every violation of freedom: trespass to goods etc. or every violation of the categorical imperative: every false promise etc.). Nor is it possible to distinguish one violation of freedom from the next, as freedom is not measurable. Thus, murder and trespass to goods would be equally wrong and equally criminalisable in Kant's scheme. A further problem with Dan-Cohen's use of the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative is that it aims to be an inclusive criterion for identifying conduct that is prima facie criminalisable, but this inclusive approach does not explain the wrongfulness (or in Dan-Cohen's use of the categorical imperative the criminalisableness) of harming animals. In this paper, I demonstrate that the harm principle is able to meet the challenges raised by Ripstein and Dan-Cohen. I also demonstrate that it offers superior criteria for ensuring that criminalisation decisions are fair, just and principled than is offered by Kant's deontological theory.

Keywords: criminalization, justice, Kant, Harm Principle, criminal law, morality, rights, penal theory

JEL Classification: K4

Suggested Citation

Baker, Dennis J., The Harm Principle vs. Kantian Criteria for Ensuring Fair, Principled and Just Criminalisation (November 12, 2008). Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 66, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Dennis J. Baker (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge

Trinity Ln
Cambridge, CB2 1TN
United Kingdom

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