The Philosophy of Criminal Law


Larry Alexander

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In this fairly lengthy essay, I attempt to bring theoretical unity to the general part of the criminal law by viewing the issues of the general part - the voluntary act requirement, mens rea, culpability, attempts, defenses, etc. - through a controversial but plausible lens, namely that legal wrongs justify criminal punishment when their commission indicates negative desert commensurate with that punishment. In exploring the question what acts (or other things) justify punishment, I take positions, sometimes unorthodox, on such matters as what should count as an attempt, is self-defense really a justification, and should the defense of duress apply to nonhuman threats, among (many) others. In the last third of the essay, I discuss the special part of the criminal law, with particular emphasis on Feinberg's work on the moral limits of the criminal law and on criminal liability for omissions.