Punishment and the Subordination of Law to Morality

Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 7 (3):421-443 (1987)
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Abstract
Arguments over criminalization and decriminalization often focus on the moral status of conduct, which is thought to be especially important to determining the appropriate legal status of the conduct. If the conduct is not thought to be immoral (or seriously immoral}, that is enough to show that it does not properly fall within the realm of control of the criminal law. Arguments relying on such a strategy may be termed moralized arguments. This article focuses on a crucial element of that strategy of argument I call the subordination thesis. The subordination thesis is the thesis that the criminal law is normatively subordinate to morality because essential elements of criminal law are themselves conceptually dependent upon elements of morality, in particular punishment. The strategy of moralized arguments is to show that some sorts of conduct do (or do not) meet certain moral descriptions and therefore are (or are not) properly candidates for control by the criminal law. The success of such a strategy then turns on the subordination thesis, and a failure adequately to defend the thesis will prove fatal to the strategy of moralized arguments. The aim of this article is to show that the subordination thesis is untenable, that law is not a subordinate normative system.
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