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The Philosophy of Criminalisation: A Review of Duff et al.’s Criminalisation Series


The philosophy of criminalisation has been a neglected topic for some time now. A considerable amount of modern criminal justice literature is dedicated to preventing crime and punishing crime, but precious little attention is dedicated to the preliminary question: what should be a crime? Over the last decade, five editors and dozens of authors published a four-part series of edited essays in an attempt to answer that question. The present article is a hybrid of sorts: in one sense, it is a review of the essays in that series; but in another sense, this article also makes its own unique contribution by answering two key questions. First, what is criminalisation? And second, how should lawmakers decide what to criminalise? Most importantly, this article suggests a new criminalisation decision-making process in order to ensure the criminal law is a justifiable framework of prohibitions and sanctions.

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  1. ABC News, ‘Oscar Pistorius Sentenced to 6 Years’ Jail for Murder of Reeva Steenkamp,’ 6 July 2016,

  2. ABC News, ‘Adrian Bayley to Serve at Least 35 Years in Jail for Rape and Murder of Jill Meagher,’ 19 June 2013,

  3. Findlay Stark, ‘Book Review: Crimes, Harms and Wrongs: On the Principles of Criminalisation,’ Social & Legal Studies 21(2) (2012): pp. 259–262, 259.

  4. Victorian Liberal Party, ‘Liberal Nationals Will Crackdown on Drive-by Shootings,’ 10 April 2106,

  5. Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 (UK).

  6. Sentencing Amendment (Coward’s Punch Manslaughter and Other Matters) Act 2014 (Vic).

  7. The Guardian (Online), ‘Walking While Texting Could Mean Jail Time under New Jersey Proposal,’ 27 March 2016,

  8. Arlie Loughnan, ‘Drink Spiking and Rock Throwing: The Creation and Construction of Criminal Offences in the Current Era,’ Alternative Law Journal 35(1) (2010): pp. 18–21, 18.

  9. David Brown, ‘Constituting Physical and Fault Elements: A NSW Case Study,’ in Thomas Crofts and Arlie Loughnan (eds.), Criminalisation and Criminal Responsibility in Australia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 13.

  10. University of Stirling, ‘Project: Criminalization,’

  11. RA Duff, Lindsay Farmer, SE Marshall, Massimo Renzo, and Victor Tadros (eds.), The Boundaries of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) (‘Boundaries’); RA Duff, Lindsay Farmer, SE Marshall, Massimo Renzo, and Victor Tadros (eds.), The Structures of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) (‘Structures’); RA Duff, Lindsay Farmer, SE Marshall, Massimo Renzo, and Victor Tadros (eds.), The Constitution of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) (‘Constitution’); RA Duff, Lindsay Farmer, SE Marshall, Massimo Renzo, and Victor Tadros (eds.), Criminalization: The Political Morality of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) (‘Political Morality’).

  12. Lindsay Farmer, Making the Modern Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Victor Tadros, Wrongs and Crimes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); RA Duff, The Realm of the Criminal Law (forthcoming).

  13. Neil MacCormick, Institutions of Law: An Essay in Legal Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 11. As Bottoms points out, each word in this definition is important; Anthony Bottoms, ‘Civil Peace and Criminalization,’ in Political Morality, pp. 232–269, 235.

  14. Lindsay Farmer, ‘Criminal Law as an Institution: Rethinking Theoretical Approaches to Criminalization,’ in Political Morality, pp. 80–100, 81.

  15. Ibid., 99–100.

  16. Bottoms, n. 13, 234; see also SE Marshall and RA Duff, ‘Criminalization and Sharing Wrongs,’ Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 11(1) (1998): pp. 7–22, 7.

  17. Philip Pettit, ‘Criminalization in Republican Theory,’ in Political Morality, pp. 132–150, 132.

  18. Ibid., 142.

  19. Michael S. Moore, ‘Liberty’s Constraints on What Should be Made Criminal,’ in Political Morality, pp. 182–212.

  20. Ibid., 195.

  21. Susan Dimock, ‘Contractarian Criminal Law Theory and Mala Prohibita Offences,’ in Political Morality, pp. 151–181, 168.

  22. Ibid., 154.

  23. James Chalmers and Fiona Leverick, ‘Quantifying Criminalization,’ in Political Morality, pp. 54–79.

  24. Nicola Lacey, ‘What Constitutes Criminal Law?,’ in Constitution, pp. 12–29.

  25. Ibid., 29.

  26. Paul H. Robinson, ‘Criminalization Tensions: Empirical Desert, Changing Norms, and Rape Reform,’ in Structures, pp. 186–202.

  27. Ibid., 186.

  28. Ibid., 202.

  29. Ibid., 200.

  30. Jeremy Horder, ‘Bureaucratic “Criminal” Law: Too Much of a Bad Thing?,’ in Political Morality, pp. 101–131, 108, citing Cecil T. Carr, Delegated Legislation: Three Lectures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921) p. 2.

  31. See, e.g., Douglas Husak: Overcriminalization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Erik Luna, ‘The Overcriminalization Phenomenon,’ American University Law Review 54(3) (2005): pp. 703–743, 703.

  32. Horder, n. 30, 109.

  33. Husak, n. 31.

  34. John S. Baker, Jr., ‘Measuring the Explosive Growth of Federal Crime Legislation,’ (Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Series, 2000),

  35. Chalmers and Leverick, n. 23.

  36. Ibid., 65.

  37. Ibid., 69–70.

  38. Ibid., 72.

  39. Andrew Ashworth and Lucia Zedner, ‘Preventive Orders: A Problem of Undercriminalization,’ in Boundaries, pp. 59–87, 59.

  40. Ibid., 62.

  41. Ibid., 82–83.

  42. Ibid., 83–87.

  43. Andrew Simester and Andreas von Hirsch, Crimes, Harms and Wrongs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) Ch. 12.

  44. See also Marilyn McMahon and Paul McGorrery, ‘Criminalising Emotional Abuse, Intimidation and Economic Abuse in the Context of Family Violence: The Tasmanian Experience,’ University of Tasmania Law Review 35(2) (2017): forthcoming.

  45. RA Duff, ‘Perversions and Subversions of Criminal Law,’ in Boundaries, pp. 88–112.

  46. Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) s 4(d)(i).

  47. Hysteria was included in the definition of ‘injury’ in Section 15 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) between 1985 and 2013.

  48. Alan Norrie, ‘Legal Form and Moral Judgement: Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide,’ in Structures, pp. 134–156, 134.

  49. Carol S. Steiker, ‘Criminalization and the Criminal Process: Prudential Mercy as a Limit on Penal Sanctions in an Era of Mass Incarceration,’ in Boundaries, pp. 27–58.

  50. Jonathan Rogers, ‘The Role of the Public Prosecutor in Applying and Developing the Substantive Criminal Law,’ in Constitution, pp. 53–76.

  51. Norrie, n. 48, 145.

  52. Crown Prosecution Service (UK), ‘Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide,’ February 2010,

  53. Rogers, n. 50, 53.

  54. Ibid., 57.

  55. Ibid., 70.

  56. Ibid., 73.

  57. Marcia Baron, ‘The Standard of the Reasonable Person in the Criminal Law,’ in Structures, pp. 11–35.

  58. Sharon Byrd, ‘On Getting the Reasonable Person Out of the Courtroom,’ Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 2(2) (2005): pp. 571–577, 571.

  59. Baron, n. 57, 16.

  60. CAJ Coady, ‘Terrorism and the Criminal Law,’ in Constitution, pp. 185–208, 188.

  61. See, e.g., Frank Tannenbaum, Crime and Community (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938) (suggesting that ‘tagging’ or labelling a person with an identity can cause it to actually become part of their identity).

  62. Mireille Hildebrandt, ‘Proactive Forensic Profiling: Proactive Criminalization?,’ in Boundaries, pp. 113–137.

  63. Ibid., 123.

  64. Paul McGorrery and Dawn Gilmore, ‘Can We Predict Who Will Turn to Crime?,’ The Conversation (AU), 2 August 2016,

  65. Richard A. Berk, Brian Kriegler, and Jong-Ho Baek, ‘Forecasting Dangerous Inmate Misconduct: An Application of Ensemble Statistical Procedures,’ Journal of Quantitative Criminology 22(2) (2006): pp. 131–145; Richard A. Berk, Lawrence Sherman, Geoffrey Barnes, Ellen Kurtz, and Lindsay Ahlman, ‘Forecasting Murder within a Population of Probationers and Parolees: A High Stakes Application of Statistical Learning,’ Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 172(1) (2009): pp. 191–211; Richard A. Berk, Susan B. Sorenson, and Geoffrey Barnes, ‘Forecasting Domestic Violence: A Machine Learning Approach to Help Inform Arraignment Decisions,’ Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 13(1) (2016): pp. 94–115.

  66. Adil Ahmad Haque, ‘International Crime: In Context and in Contrast,’ in Structures, pp. 106–133; Massimo Renzo, ‘Responsibility and Answerability in the Criminal Law,’ in Constitution, pp. 209–236; Coady, n. 60.

  67. François Tanguay-Renaud, ‘Puzzling About State Excuses as an Instance of Group Excuses,’ in Constitution, pp. 151–184.

  68. Haque, n. 66.

  69. Ibid., 114 and 117.

  70. Renzo, n. 66, 214, citing RA Duff, Answering for Crime: Responsibility and Liability in the Criminal Law (Oxford: Hart Publishers, 2007) 23.

  71. Ibid., 217–220.

  72. Ibid., 225.

  73. Ibid., 227.

  74. Ibid., 228.

  75. Farmer, n. 14, 88.

  76. Ibid., 92.

  77. John Gardner, ‘Criminals in Uniform,’ in Constitution, pp. 97–118. .

  78. Ibid., 98.

  79. R v MBJ [2010] QCA 211.

  80. The Queen v Tran, Levchenko and Fucile [2013] VSC 363.

  81. Victor Tadros, ‘Criminalization and Regulation,’ in Boundaries, pp. 163–190.

  82. Ibid., 170.

  83. Ibid., 187 (‘I see no greater reason to condemn thieves than to condemn those who breach contracts’).

  84. Jonathan Schonsheck, On Criminalization: An Essay in the Philosophy of the Criminal Law (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994).

  85. Douglas Husak, ‘Polygamy: A Novel Test for a Theory of Criminalization,’ in Political Morality, pp. 216–231. For a more detailed exposition of these principles, see Husak, n. 31.

  86. Ibid., 219–231.

  87. Simester and von Hirsch, n. 43.

  88. Farmer, n. 14, 82–83.

  89. Kai Ambos, ‘The Overall Function of International Criminal Law: Striking the Right Balance Between the Rechtsgut and the Harm Principle,’ Criminal Law and Philosophy 9(2) (2015): pp. 301–329; Nina Peršak, Criminalising Harmful Conduct: The Harm Principle, its Limits and Continental Counterparts (New York: Springer, 2007).

  90. Ibid., 316.

  91. Or, as Feinberg might say, ‘setback’; Joel Feinberg, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law Vol I: Harm to Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

  92. Andrew Cornford, ‘Rethinking the Wrongness Constraint on Criminalisation,’ Law and Philosophy (2017): advance online publication, doi: 10.1007/s10982-017-9299-z.

  93. Kimmo Nuotio, ‘Theories of Criminalization and the Limits of Criminal Law: A Legal Cultural Approach,’ in Boundaries, pp. 239–261.

  94. John Stanton-Ife, ‘Horrific Crime,’ in Boundaries, pp. 138–162.

  95. John Gardner and Stephen Shute, ‘The Wrongness of Rape,’ in Jeremy Horder (ed.), Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence (Fourth Series) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  96. Stanton-Ife, n. 94, 154.

  97. Ibid., 162.

  98. Markus D. Dubber, ‘Criminal Law between Public and Private Law,’ in Boundaries, pp. 191–213.

  99. Bottoms, n. 13.

  100. Dubber, n. 98, 213.

  101. SE Marshall, ‘“It Isn’t Just About You”: Victims of Crime, their Associated Duties, and Public Wrongs,’ in Political Morality, pp. 291–306.

  102. Ibid., 296.

  103. Ibid., 291–292.

  104. Ibid., 297.

  105. Christopher Wellman, ‘Rights Forfeiture and Mala Prohibita,’ in Constitution, pp. 77–96.

  106. Ibid., 77.

  107. In particular, Wellman prefers rights forfeiture theory over retributivism, utilitarianism, moral education theory, expressivist theory, restitutive theory, and safety-valve theory.

  108. Wellman, n. 105, 92.

  109. Statutory rape involves constructive non-consent when an adult has intercourse with a person of legislatively proscribed age.

  110. This suggestion, though, runs the risk of exposing victims to cross-examination about topics such as their past sexual history, the same risk that prompted the enactment of rape shield laws; see, e.g., Frank Tuerkheimer, ‘A Reassessment and Redefinition of Rape Shield Laws,’ Ohio State Law Journal 50(5) (1989): pp. 1245–1274.

  111. Peter Ramsay, ‘Preparation Offences, Security Interests, Political Freedom,’ in Structures, pp. 203–228.

  112. Ibid., 220. Thought crimes are unfortunately no longer just some fictional notion in an Orwellian dystopia, but are instead becoming a genuine possibility. One court in the United States recently upheld a council’s banning of an individual from public parks after he had legally attended a park, left without incident, and later admitted to his sex addicts anonymous group and therapist that he had sexual thoughts about the children there; Doe v City of Lafayette 377 F 3d 757 (7th Cir. 2004). Such reasoning, allowing these two legal actions (having thoughts, and later telling people about those thoughts) to add up to something unlawful, has been described as an ‘awkward legal algebra’; Christoph Bublitz, ‘Freedom of Thought in the Age of Neuroscience,’ Archiv fuer Rechts-und Sozialphilosophie 100(1) (2014): pp. 1–25, 15.

  113. Andreas von Hirsch, ‘Extending the Harm Principle: “Remote” Harms and Fair Imputation,’ in Andrew P. Simester and ATH Smith (eds.), Harm and Culpability (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Simester and von Hirsch, n. 43.

  114. Ibid.

  115. Benjamin Harcourt, ‘The Collapse of the Harm Principle,’ Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 90(1) (1999): pp. 109–194.

  116. Vanessa E. Munro and Jane Scoular, ‘Harm, Vulnerability, and Citizenship: Constitutional Concerns in the Criminalization of Contemporary Sex Work,’ in Constitution, pp. 30–52.

  117. Home Office (Scottish Home Department), Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (1957).

  118. See, e.g., Simester and von Hirsch, n. 43; RA Duff, ‘Towards a Modest Legal Moralism,’ Criminal Law and Philosophy 8(1) (2014): pp. 217–235.

  119. The harm principle has endured a tortured history over the last century and a half: it was popularised by Mill, struggled but succeeded during the Hart-Devlin debate, collapsed under the ensuing pressure of remote and trivial harms, and is currently being rebuilt not in opposition to, but as a ‘partner in crime’ (as it were) with, legal moralism; RA Duff, Lindsay Farmer, SE Marshall, Massimo Renzo, and Victor Tadros, ‘Introduction: The Boundaries of the Criminal Law,’ in Boundaries, pp. 1–26, 15–23.

  120. Harcourt, n. 115, 120.

  121. Munro and Scoular, n. 116, 46 and 48.

  122. Ibid., 48.

  123. Ibid., 50. The Canadian Supreme Court has, since Munro and Scoular’s chapter was published, unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision to strike down those laws; Canada (AG) v Bedford [2013] 3 SCR 1101.

  124. Andrew Cornford, ‘Resultant Luck and Criminal Liability,’ in Structures, pp. 36–58.

  125. Harcourt, n. 115, 110.

  126. Duff, n. 118.

  127. Lindsay Farmer, ‘Criminal Wrongs in Historical Perspective,’ in Boundaries, pp. 214–237, 215.

  128. Ibid., 216.

  129. Ibid., 219.

  130. Ibid., 222.

  131. Ibid., 223.

  132. Ibid., 233.

  133. Ibid., 237.

  134. Sharon Cowan, ‘Criminalizing SM: Disavowing the Erotic, Instantiating Violence,’ in Structures, pp. 59–84.

  135. Mark R. McGuire, ‘Abnormal Law: Teratology as a Logic of Criminalization,’ in Structures, pp. 157–181.

  136. Cowan, n. 134, 78.

  137. Ibid., 78.

  138. R v Brown [1994] 1 AC 212.

  139. R v Dica [2004] EWCA Crim 1103.

  140. Malcolm Thornburn, ‘Constitutionalism and the Limits of the Criminal Law,’ in Structures, pp. 85–105.

  141. Ibid., 90.

  142. Ibid., 93.

  143. Ibid., 88.

  144. RA Duff, Lindsay Farmer, SE Marshall, Massimo Renzo, and Victor Tadros, ‘Introduction: Towards a Theory of Criminalization?,’ in Political Morality, pp. 1–53.

  145. Ibid., 6.

  146. McGuire, n. 135.

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McGorrery, P. The Philosophy of Criminalisation: A Review of Duff et al.’s Criminalisation Series. Criminal Law, Philosophy 12, 185–207 (2018).

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  • Criminalisation
  • Criminal law
  • Criminal law philosophy