Retributive Justice and the Demands of Democratic Citizenship

Virginia Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 1, pp. 1-133, 2012

135 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2011 Last revised: 19 Mar 2012

See all articles by Dan Markel

Dan Markel

Florida State University College of Law (Deceased)

Date Written: March 16, 2012


This article reveals and responds to the democracy deficit in certain retributivist approaches to criminal law. Democracy deficits arise when we insufficiently recognize the moral authority of liberal democracies to create new moral obligations for us as individuals. Specifically, I will argue, in contrast to the claims of some leading criminal law theorists, that conduct can be legitimately and justly criminalized even if the conduct is not morally wrongful prior to or independent of law. In other words, once we understand the basis for our presumptive political obligations within liberal democracies, a more capacious approach to establishing criminal laws can be tolerated from a political retributivist perspective.

If I'm correct, then here are some of the implications: we are morally obligated (in a pro tanto way) to (1) conform our conduct, in our capacities as nonofficials, not only to “good” mala in se criminal laws but also many mala prohibita laws, laws that I call permissibly dumb but not illiberal; (2) to render, in our capacities as nonofficials, reasonable assistance to law enforcement of the previous categories of laws; and (3) to enforce, in our capacities as officials, these categories of laws. While the implications of this "democratic fidelity" argument are extensive, there is no moral obligation to surrender one’s judgment entirely. Indeed, officials and nonofficials have no moral obligation toward laws that are illiberal or what I call "spectacularly dumb," regardless of their valid legal status.

Like democratic criminalization choices, democratic sentencing laws must also be scrutinized. To that end, I sketch two moral frameworks that should work in conjunction with each other and with the threshold criminalization question when deciding whether to enforce, conform to, or assist enforcement efforts of criminal laws within liberal democracies.

This piece was the invited launch paper for the new Virginia Journal of Criminal Law. Professors Bowers, Cahill & Duff have written responses, and I have a reply essay.

Professor Bowers' paper can be found at:

Professor Cahill's response can be found at:

My reply essay can be found at:

Keywords: legal moralism, criminal justice, retributive justice, retributivism, criminalization, political retributivism

Suggested Citation

Markel, Dan, Retributive Justice and the Demands of Democratic Citizenship (March 16, 2012). Virginia Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 1, pp. 1-133, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Dan Markel (Contact Author)

Florida State University College of Law (Deceased)

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