On a Parfit-inspired account of culpability, as the psychological connections between a person’s younger self and older self weaken, the older self’s culpability for a wrong committed by the younger self diminishes. Suppose we accept this account and also accept a culpability-based upper limit on punishment severity. On this combination of views, we seem forced to conclude that perpetrators of distant past wrongs should either receive discounted punishments or be exempted from punishment entirely. This article develops a strategy for resisting this conclusion. I propose that, even if the perpetrators of distant past wrongs cannot permissibly be punished for the original wrongs, in typical cases they can permissibly be punished for their ongoing and iterated failures to rectify earlier wrongs. Having set out this proposal, I defend it against three objections, before exploring how much punishment it can justify.
Funding was provided by Wellcome Trust (Grant No. 100705/Z/12/Z) and Uehiro Foundation on Ethics and Education. For their comments on earlier versions of this manuscript, I would like to thank Areti Theofilopoulou, Holly Lawford-Smith, three anonymous reviewers, and audiences at the Oxford-Denmark Workshop in Applied Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 2016), the Oxford-Bucharest Workshop in Practical Ethics (Oxford, 2016), the Personal Identity in Public Policy Workshop (Oxford, 2016), and the Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Conference (Copenhagen, 2017).
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Douglas, T. Punishing Wrongs from the Distant Past. Law and Philos 38, 335–358 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10982-019-09352-8