Making Punishment Safe: Adding an Anti-Luck Condition to Retributivism and Rights Forfeiture

Law, Ethics and Philosophy:1-18 (2024)
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Retributive theories of punishment argue that punishing a criminal for a crime she committed is sufficient reason for a justified and morally permissible punishment. But what about when the state gets lucky in its decision to punish? I argue that retributive theories of punishment are subject to “Gettier” style cases from epistemology. Such cases demonstrate that the state needs more than to just get lucky, and as these retributive theories of punishment stand, there is no anti-luck condition. I’ll argue that Gettier-style cases demonstrate an impermissible instance of punishment, even though they meet the conditions of retributive theories of punishment. Retributive theories are, therefore, too weak. The safety condition from epistemology provides the anti-luck condition needed for permissible punishment. I argue that two forms of retributivism, rights-forfeiture and what I call standard retributivism, are both subject to Gettier-style cases. Unlike the literature on standards of proof, this paper argues that safety is a condition on punishment itself, i.e., in all nearby possible worlds, the accuser must correctly accuse the convicted for the crime they actually committed.

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J. Spencer Atkins
State University of New York at Binghamton


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