What is the Harm Principle for?

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Abstract

In their excellent monograph, Crimes, Harms and Wrongs, Andrew Simester and Andreas von Hirsch argue for an account of legitimate criminalisation based on wrongfulness, the Harm Principle and the Offence Principle, while they reject an independent anti-paternalism principle. To put it at its simplest my aim in the present paper is to examine the relationship between ‘the harms’ and ‘the wrongs’ of the authors’ title. I begin by comparing the authors’ version of the Harm and Offence Principle with some other influential accounts. After examining the (considerable) role wrongfulness plays in their work, I ask what there is left for their Harm and Offence Principles to do. In the light of the understanding and foundations of the Harm and Offence Principles proposed by the authors, I suggest that the answer is little or nothing. The wrongfulness constraint the authors place on their Offence Principle comes close to swallowing it up entirely. Furthermore the part of their Offence Principle that is not thus swallowed by wrongfulness leaves the account with a commitment that is probably best dropped. As far as their Harm Principle is concerned I suggest that the authors’ account of ‘harm’ is so broad that it lacks the resources to distinguish harm-based reasons from wrongfulness- or immorality-based reasons in any principled way. Among other things, I ask in this context, first, whether one can be harmed as one’s character deteriorates and, secondly, whether one is harmed by virtue of the serious wrong one does to another. What really drives the authors’ account of legitimate criminalisation, I believe, is wrongfulness together with an important, amorphous set of potential defeating conditions. They themselves accept such a picture so far as paternalism is concerned. I conclude that their account, which I think has considerable force, would lose little of any significance were their Harm and Offence Principles simply excised. More generally I suspect that a strong role for wrongfulness in an account of legitimate criminalisation is likely to put into serious question the plausibility of an independent principled role for harm and offence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)329-353
JournalCriminal Law and Philosophy
Volume10
Issue number2
Early online date1 May 2014
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016

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