Libertarians and the Claims of Democratic Authority in the Context of Criminalization Debates

Libertarians and the Claims of Democratic Authority in the Context of Criminalization Debates

On August 20, 2014, Posted by , In Criminal Law, By , , With No Comments

(Dan Markel) I have a section in this paper I’m working on –designed to be a love letter of sorts between retributive justice and liberal democracy :-) —  that I’m afraid I’m not sure is fully there yet, and I was wondering if those with a political philosophy bent might have some reactions. The relevant background here is that I’m trying to explain the reasonableness of democratic authority, largely by appeal to some arguments put forward these days (ie, in the last decade) by Shapiro, Hershovitz, and Christiano. My concern, however, is that in anticipating the first-wave libertarian objection, they have not responded to the “second wave” of critique that an aspect of Arneson’s paper represents. (The rough cites for this can be found below.). I could be completely wrong and maybe they or others address the concern, so please feel free to email me offline . 

So below the fold, please take a look at these tentative thoughts and feel free to share some reactions or references to additional citations that can help me manage Arneson’s critique. I’ve included a bit more of the discussion than is necessary in case it spurs other reactions too. All the usual caveats apply–it’s just a preliminary draft and not for citation or circulation w/o my approval but yes, please tell me if/how I’m wrong (gently). Many thanks!

  1. Why Fidelity to Liberal Democratic Law?

To sustain a claim that offenders in liberal democracies could reasonably and retributively be punished even in the absence of conduct that is morally wrongful probably requires overcoming an intuition that is widespread and reasonably fixed. Nonetheless, we currently have many laws that criminalize conduct that is not morally wrongful, and many of those laws are violated, and those violators are punished. So do we rationalize this outcome simply by appealing to the possibility that we are all, deep down, thoroughgoing welfarists and that these laws (and the punishments made in their name) are in fact welfare-promoting? 

Well, that is one tactic available to avoid cognitive dissonance. But another way to explain this outcome – and indeed to justify it – is to say that we have obligations to conform our conduct to the law’s dictates in liberal democracies, and the recognition of these obligations is not only reasonable, but praiseworthy.[i] What would such an argument look like?

Scott Shapiro and others have defended the idea that there is an authority of law in liberal democratic regimes such that the fact of legislation to do X provides a free-standing (though probably still defeasible) reason to X.[ii] (I leave aside for now whether that obligation is one that necessarily trumps all other reasons to do or not do X.[iii])

We live, work, and play with others—that much cannot be denied. The reason we must conform to democratically elected authority is because such a power-sharing arrangement is, according to Shapiro, “socially necessary, empowering and fair.  By disobeying, subjects are unilaterally, and hence unreasonably, setting the terms and direction of social cooperation.”[iv] To understand why this unilateralism is inappropriate, consider first that “social cooperation is not … possible without the availability of procedures for the resolution of conflict.”[v] Moreover, and “absent acceptable resolution, disputes would fester … [and] likely threaten the very survival of the community.”[vi] As Heidi Hurd notes, democratic rulemaking is morally demanding (even if defeasibly so)  because “when a moral matter is in dispute (even a matter that concerns competing claims of right, rather than competing claims of preference or utility) and it is more important (again, perhaps as a matter of right) to gain a peaceful resolution of the dispute than to gain a right resolution at a cost to peace, a democratic resolution will recommend itself, and the value of peace will thus dictate compliance with the democratically-crafted solution, even when one takes the resolution to be in error.”[vii]

To risk such dire effects is especially misplaced once “citizens are granted the power to exert control over their lives by allowing them, through the franchise, to affect the terms of social cooperation and the direction of collective pursuits.”[viii]

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