The Secret Ambition of Deterrence

Harvard Law Review, Vol. 113, December 1999

Posted: 16 Nov 1999  

Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School


This article identifies the political and moral economies of deterrence theory in legal discourse. Drawing on an extensive social science literature, it shows that deterrence arguments in fact have little impact on citizens' views on controversial policies such as capital punishment, gun control, and hate crime laws. Citizens conventionally defend their positions in deterrence terms nonetheless only because the alternative is a highly contentious expressive idiom, which social norms, strategic calculation, and liberal morality all condemn. But not all citizens respond to these forces. Expressive zealots have an incentive to frame controversial issues in culturally partisan terms, thereby forcing moderate citizens to defect from the deterrence detente and declare their cultural allegiances as well. Accordingly, deliberations permanently cycle between the disengaged, face-saving idiom of deterrence and the partisan, face-breaking idiom of expressive condemnation. These dynamics complicate the normative assessment of deterrence. By abstracting from contentious expressive judgments, deterrence arguments serve the ends of liberal public reason, which enjoins citizens to advance arguments accessible to individuals of diverse moral persuasions. But precisely because deterrence arguments denude the law of social meaning, the prominence of the deterrence idiom impedes progressives from harnessing the expressive power of the law to challenge unjust social norms. There is no stable discourse equilibrium between the deterrence and expressive idioms, either as a positive matter or a normative one.

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M., The Secret Ambition of Deterrence. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 113, December 1999. Available at SSRN:

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


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