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The chimera of proportionality: institutionalising limits on punishment in contemporary social and political systems

Lacey, Nicola and Pickard, Hanna (2015) The chimera of proportionality: institutionalising limits on punishment in contemporary social and political systems. Modern Law Review, 78 (2). pp. 216-240. ISSN 0026-7961

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Identification Number: 10.1111/1468-2230.12114


The concept of proportionality has been central to the retributive revival in penal theory, and is the main idea underlying desert theory’s normative and practical commitment to limiting punishment. Theories of punishment combining desert-based and consequentialist considerations also appeal to proportionality as a limiting condition. In this paper, we argue that these claims are founded on an exaggerated idea of what proportionality, in itself, can offer, and in particular fail properly to consider the question of what sorts of institutional conditions are needed in order to foster robust limits on the state’s power to punish. The idea that appeals to proportionality as an abstract ideal can help to limit punishment is, we argue, a chimera: what has been thought of as proportionality is not a naturally existing relationship, but a product of political and social construction, cultural meaning-making, and institution-building. Drawing on evolutionary psychology and comparative political economy, we argue that philosophers and social scientists need to work together to understand the ways in which the appeal of the idea of proportionality can best be realised through substantive institutional frameworks under particular conditions.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2015 The Authors. The Modern Law Review © 2015 The Modern Law Review Limited
Divisions: Gender Studies
Social Policy
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Gender Institute
Departments > Law
Departments > Social Policy
Date Deposited: 02 Dec 2014 15:47
Last Modified: 20 Jun 2020 01:57
Projects: 090768
Funders: Wellcome Trust

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