Modal Retributivism: A Theory of Sanctions for Attempts and Other Criminal Wrongs

29 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2009 Last revised: 10 Oct 2022

Date Written: November 4, 2009


How much punishment, in terms of size and severity, should a person get for a given offense? Operating in a deontological framework, the article attempts to answer the question of criminal punishment severity in a unified, principled manner.

There is a wide-spread intuition that "harm matters." The article begins by critiquing harm-based retributivism. Proponents of harm-based retributivism believe that attempts should be punished less we feel, but how much less? One-half? Three-quarters? The problem with harm-based retributivism, it is argued, is that it cannot be extended in a principled manner to inchoate offenses, such as attempts. The related idea that an actor should be punished based on not the harm, but the risk he creates is considered. This approach, however, it is found wanting because it cannot be applied consistently to offenses of reckless harm-causing and reckless risk-creation.

In response to these criticisms, the article presents an alternative to both harm-based and risk-based retributivism--modal retributivism. The essence of modal retributivism is that under it, the fact that harm results from wrongful conduct is not relevant to the severity of the sanction deserved, as it is under harm-based retributivism, but rather, it is relevant to the sanction's mode as precatory ("should be imposed") or permissive ("may be imposed"). With this theory in place, punishment levels for inchoate crimes, such as attempts and reckless endangerment, are recommended. Next, punishment levels for crimes of passion and negligence are considered with an eye toward setting punishment discount levels in a nonarbitrary manner.

Keywords: criminal law, punishment, desert, attempts, retributivism, philosophy, ethics

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Dillof, Anthony, Modal Retributivism: A Theory of Sanctions for Attempts and Other Criminal Wrongs (November 4, 2009). University of Richmond Law Review, Vol. 45, p. 647, 2011, Available at SSRN: or

Anthony Dillof (Contact Author)

Wayne State Univerity Law School ( email )

471 W. Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States
(313) 577-9450 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics