Criminal Harms

Thom Brooks

Durham University

July 15, 2013

Brooks, Thom. 2014. "Criminal Harms" in T. Brooks (ed.), Law and Legal Theory. Boston: Brill, pp. 149-161.

What is a crime? A common answer is that crimes are harms. One particular argument is that morality forms the connection between crimes and harms: crimes are not any kind of harm, but specifically a kind of immorality. This position is consistent with natural law jurisprudence which claims that law and morality are inseparably linked. It is also consistent with standard defences of retribution whereby punishment is justified where deserved and to the degree deserved. Retributivist desert is present for individuals that possess some degree of moral responsibility for causing or attempting to cause evil. For example, the murderer deserves severe punishment because he is morally responsible for another person’s death and this act is sufficiently evil to warrant severe punishment.

The idea that crimes are harms to morals — and so their immorality informs their criminality and the corresponding severity of punishment — has also found favour with so-called ‘expressivist’ theories of punishment defended by Joel Feinberg, Antony Duff and others. These theories argue that punishment has an expressivist function of communication public disapproval to criminal offenders for their moral wrongdoings where punishment is proportionate to immorality.

The justification of crimes as harms to morals is part of a venerable tradition that has come to be increasingly seen as discredited. Most academics working in law (and even more practising lawyers) reject natural law jurisprudence and support some version of the separability thesis of legal positivism where law and morality are held to be separable, but not intrinsically and necessarily linked. Yet, curiously, retributivist theories, including expressivism, have been on the ascendency with a growing number of legal philosophers defending the idea of crimes as harms to morals and, therefore, moving in a contrary direction to most others working in law and academic law.

I believe this general position is deeply problematic and should be rejected. This chapter focuses specifically on expressivist theories as the increasingly more popular variant of retributivism in academic circles today. The next section provides an overview of expressivism. The following sections argue that it is not compelling both as a view about the criminal law, but also as a theory about punishment. I close the chapter with ideas about criminal harms might be better understood. I argue that crimes might be a kind of harm, but not the kinds of harm endorsed by retributivists and, more specifically, expressivists.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 16

Keywords: Crime, Harm, Duff, Feinberg, Expressivism, Communicative, Punishment, Morality, Natural Law, Legal Positivism, Legal Realism, Rights

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K30, K40, K42

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Date posted: July 15, 2013 ; Last revised: June 25, 2014

Suggested Citation

Brooks, Thom, Criminal Harms (July 15, 2013). Brooks, Thom. 2014. "Criminal Harms" in T. Brooks (ed.), Law and Legal Theory. Boston: Brill, pp. 149-161.. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2293811

Contact Information

Thom Brooks (Contact Author)
Durham University ( email )
Durham Law School
Durham University
Durham, County Durham DH1 3ET
United Kingdom
+441913344365 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.dur.ac.uk/law/staff/?mode=staff&id=11140
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