The authority of moral oversight: on the legitimacy of criminal law

An influential view in recent philosophy of punishment is that the apparatus of crim- inal justice should be geared at least in part to state censure of wrongdoing. I argue that if it were to be so geared, such an apparatus would make ambitious claims to authority, and that the legitimacy of the relevant state would then depend on whether those claims can be vindicated. This paper looks first at what kind of authority is being claimed by this apparatus. The criminal law, I argue, cannot merely be thought of as claiming a right to rule and to be obeyed. Rather, its authority is better under- stood as the authority of moral oversight: a power to alter, at will (though within cer- tain limits), citizens’ liability to answer for their compliance withand to be officially censured for their failure to comply witha designated set of pre-existing moral 7reasons. The paper then looks at whether a state could realistically be expected to possess such authoritythat is, whether a state that claims to have such a power could ever be legitimate.

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