Department of Philosophy



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Ryan McSheffrey (Queen's University)

“Criminal punishment, basic human rights and the duties of offenders”

The purpose of this paper is to interrogate an apparent tension between basic human rights (which are usually understood to be universal and inviolable) and the common practice of criminal punishment (which seems to represent a counter-example to the claim that human rights are universal and inviolable). This apparent tension engenders a philosophical problem that I refer to as “the problem of the basic rights of offenders”: How is it possible to reconcile the basic rights of wrongdoers with the tangible, forward-looking benefits of criminal justice institutions, e.g. crime prevention, rehabilitation, societal reintegration, etc.? In the paper, I distinguish between three possible general strategies: (1) The desert-based (or traditional retributive) view, (2) the forfeited rights view, (3) and the enforceable secondary duties view. Subsequently, I defend a version of the duty-oriented account (3). My main argument is that the central problem that confronts the forfeited rights view, specifically, the problem surrounding the appropriate circumscription of those basic rights that ought to be considered in principle forfeitable or conditional, can be overcome by appealing to a plausible substantive account of what wrongdoers owe to their victims and the wider, normative community.


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