Political Philosophy

Should we punish crimes from the distant past?

Former Auschwitz SS officer Oskar Gröning is currently being tried as an accessory to murder for his role as an administrator in the extermination camp, and the trial has stirred up a lot of debate. One strand of the debate addresses the question whether Gröning was complicit in the extermination of prisoners, and whether he was culpable for this complicity. (Roger Crisp wrote a fascinating post on this a couple of weeks back.) But another strand – and the strand that I want to look at here – has addressed the question whether former Nazi war criminals should be tried and punished for deeds in their distant past. Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor and witness in Gröning’s trial has claimed that he shouldn’t be tried, though he should use his knowledge to help fight holocaust denial.

Let’s suppose that Gröning was indeed a culpable accomplice to murder. Should he then be punished? More generally, should serious crimes from decades go be punished? My intuition is that they should, but reflecting on why I have found it is not straightforward to defend this view. Continue reading

Who Should be Allowed to Vote?

Let us suppose that a jury has just reached a verdict on any case you can imagine (however trivial). Let us suppose that we discover one of the following three facts:

  1. The Ignorant Jury. The jury paid no attention to the trial; when asked how each of them found the defendant, they arbitrarily decided on guilty.
  2. The Irrational Jury. The jury paid some attention to the trial, however decided their judgement on reasons not related to the trail, such as wishful thinking or bizarre conspiracy theories.
  3. The Morally Unreasonable Jury. The jury found the defendant guilty because of pre-existing prejudices, i.e. she is Romanian.

In each of these cases the jury would lack authority and legitimacy (there would most likely be a retrial). A jury’s decision can significantly affect people’s lives—not simply the defendants—by depriving them of property, liberty and even life. Here’s a principle that the three juries could be said to violate:

The Competence Principle: It is unjust to deprive citizens of life, liberty and property, or to alter their life prospects significantly, by force and threats of force as a result of decisions made by an incompetent or morally unreasonable deliberative body, or as a result of decisions made in an incompetent and morally unreasonable way (Brennan 2011, 704). Continue reading

Should remorseful offenders be punished less harshly?

New Book: ‘Remorse, Penal Theory and Sentencing’ (Oxford: Hart Publishing)

If an offender is genuinely remorseful about the crime she committed, should she receive some small-but-non-trivial mitigation of her sentence? – i.e. should she be punished a little bit less than she would have been had she not been remorseful? In many jurisdictions, including England and Wales, this practice is written into the sentencing guidelines that judges have to follow. However, it is difficult to see how this practice can be justified, and intuitions about the relevance of remorse to criminal sentencing seem to vary wildly.

One first obvious concern is that it can be difficult to know whether an offender’s remorse is genuine: is she just pretending in the hope that her sentence will consequently be somewhat lighter than it would otherwise have been? Whilst the possibility of simulation indeed presents a practical challenge, the prior question is whether an offender’s genuine remorse should matter at all. Should judges try to determine whether an offender is remorseful and, if so, with what consequences? Continue reading

Wrongdoing and the Harm it Causes

One of the arguments against military humanitarian intervention (or wars or invasions justified on similar grounds, viz., averting harm) is that given how much such actions cost, those resources could be better used to alleviate more harm elsewhere. Against such arguments it could be suggested that humanitarian intervention stops wrongdoing and so, while we might be able to alleviate more harm elsewhere, the fact that the harm is the result of wrongdoing makes it more important. Such arguments are something I’ve been discussing with people over the past week so thought I may set them out here.

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Smoking, Ice-Cream and Logical Progressions: Why We Shouldn’t Ban Smoking in Outdoor Public Places

It’s a beautiful warm sunny day, and you have decided to take your children to join a group of friends for a barbecue at the local public park. The wine is flowing (orange juice for the kids), you have managed not to burn the sausages (vegetarian or otherwise), and there is even an ice-cream van parked a conveniently short walk away.

An idyllic scenario for many of us, I’m sure you will agree; one might even go so far as to suggest that this is exactly the sort of thing that public parks are there for; they represent a carefree environment in which we can enjoy the sunshine and engage in recreational communal activities with others. Continue reading

Should ethics be taught in schools?


In New South Wales, Australia, classes on secular ethics have been offered to some students as an alternative to religious studies since 2010. A programme called ‘Primary Ethics’ is now taught to around 20,000 students in more than 300 schools. It introduces discussion of moral issues in a systematic way and provides an educational experience for students who were previously not provided with a taught alternative.

Should schools, particularly government schools, teach ethics? Or does doing so violate an important principle of government neutrality on matters moral and spiritual?

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The fundamental elements of rights

Rights-talk is pervasive. The assertions “I have a right to that” or “You can’t violate their rights!” are familiar, and we often take ourselves to understand what they mean. But, insufficient attention is often paid to the various elements that jointly comprise a right, and very little attention is given to how those elements fit together.[1] This oversight can cause problems, and so it’s worth being clear about what we’re talking about when we speak of rights. Continue reading

On the supposed distinction between culture and religion: A brief comment on Sir James Munby’s decision in the matter of B and G (children)

On the supposed distinction between culture and religion: A brief comment on Sir James Munby’s decision in the matter of B and G (children)

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)


What is the difference between “culture” and “religion” … ? From a legal standpoint, this question is important: practices which may be described as being ‘religious’ in nature are typically afforded much greater protection from interference by the state than those that are understood as being “merely” cultural. One key area in which this distinction is commonly drawn is with respect to the non-therapeutic alterations of children’s genitals. When such alteration is done to female children, it is often said to be a “cultural” practice that does not deserve legal protection; whereas, when it is done to male children, it is commonly said to be a “religious” practice – at least for some groups – and must therefore not be restricted (much less forbidden) by law.

Is this a valid distinction?

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Should Hitler have been able to speak at the Oxford Union?



The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) recently voted to “condemn” the invitation of Marine LePen to speak at the Oxford Union (which is an entirely separate organization, for those outside of Oxford). In addition to condemning LePen and the Union for inviting her, the OUSU President was mandated to send an emergency letter (i.e. a letter that comes outside the normal weekly bulletins, and usually happens when a person is missing or there is an emergency). I was informed that as a student union, “we” had voted to condemn LePen and the Union for giving her a platform and were encouraged to protest. To what extent is this true? Had the Union, in inviting her, legitimised her politics?

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The Welfare State: who should pay for the transportation of a rich person’s child to and from school?

Suppose you have a child with special educational needs. Suppose the only school that could meet your child’s needs (as set out by their Statement of Special Educational Needs) was over an hour away (as can often happen). It falls under your local authority’s duties, who agree that they cannot provide a school within your area, to pay for transport for your child along with the essential carer who understand your child’s needs. Finally, suppose you’re very well off: should you pay for that transportation service?

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