Original Paper

Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 307-326

First online:

Why criminal harms matter: Plato’s abiding insight in the Laws

  • Peter WestenAffiliated withFrank G. Millard Professor of Law, Michigan University Email author 

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Commentators have contested the role of resulting harm in criminal law since the time of Plato. Unfortunately, they have neglected what may be not only the best discussion of the issue, but also the first—namely, Plato’s one-paragraph discussion in the Laws. Plato’s discussion succeeds in reconciling two, seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints that till now have been in stalemate. Thus, Plato reconciles the view, that an offender’s desert is solely a function of his subjective willingness to act in disregard of the legitimate interests of others, with the view that criminal sentences can appropriately be made to depend upon how indignant, angry, and upset society is at an offender based upon the results of his culpable conduct. In doing so, Plato casts light on retributive theories of punishment by suggesting that an adjudicator can be committed to retribution and yet rightly believe that it is inappropriate to give an offender the full punishment he deserves. He also lays a basis for the view that causation, rather being predicates for the just punishment of offenders toward whom the public is intuitively angry for harm, is the consequence of the public’s being intuitively angry at offenders for harm.


Harm Desert Punishment Plato Causation