The Practical, the Political and the Ethical seminar series

The Practical, the Political and the Ethical seminar series
26 July 2018, 5.30pm - 7.00pm
Room 246, Second Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU


Daniel Viehoff (NYU)

On Legitimately Punishing the Innocent, and Other Puzzles about State-inflicted Harm


It is widely held that officials have permissions to inflict harm on innocent people that ordinary citizens lack. For example, innocent persons have a right against being non-consensually restrained or harmed. And yet officials in any actually existing legal system regularly (and inevitably) do just that: police stop, search, and arrest suspects who are in fact innocent; courts erroneously convict innocent defendants; and prison wardens inflict severe punishment on innocent convicts. As long as officials satisfy certain procedural requirements, however, their actions are considered legitimate, and deemed not to create the normative consequences normally associated with infringing (let alone violating) another’s right against harm.

This essay seeks to develop an account of the moral privilege to harm that officials are widely thought to have, and identify the conditions under which they possess it. We cannot make sense of the officials’ moral position by simply viewing their actions as excused, or as justified as the lesser among several evils. Nor is it plausible that the victim has forfeited her right against being harmed by the official. So this essay explores an alternative explanation: Sometimes A may be at liberty to harm B in ways ordinarily barred by B’s rights because A’s action, though it harms B, is ultimately undertaken for B (in a sense that requires elucidation). If an official acts for the citizens, then citizens (rather than the official) may have to bear the burdens of (certain of) the official’s mistakes even if this means that they are unjustly punished or otherwise sanctioned. But the conditions required to ‘act for’ another in the specific sense are stringent; and officials who fail to meet them lack the moral privileges commonly attributed to them.

The Institute of Philosophy hosts a regular workshop series entitled ‘The Practical, the Political, and the Ethical’. The series was created in 2015 by Véronique Munoz-Dardé (UCL) and Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck) in order to discuss work in progress from visiting speakers. This year the series is convened by Véronique Munoz-Dardé (UCL) and Amanda Greene (UCL). The seminar generally meets on alternate Tuesdays from 5.30 to 7.30pm in the spring and summer terms. Talks are normally 50 minutes (no pre-circulation of the paper), followed by discussion. All are welcome.  


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