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Justifying punishment in liberal theory: moral accountability in Bentham, Kant, and Locke
In this work I show that classical liberalism offers a compelling defense of criminalization and sanction, even retribution, and argues that those who find themselves disillusioned with liberal theory underestimate it. I dispute the recurrent charge that liberals cannot defend the political practice of criminal punishment. This is a complaint against caricatures of liberalism – that is, oversimplified readings which conflate liberalism and utilitarianism, or else late-stage iterations tainted by Kant’s moral absolutism. I develop a coherent theory of punishment drawn from the works of Locke himself and suggest that the best recourse against calls to defund law enforcement and cancel criminal justice is this liberal defense of state coercion. The notion of sanction for transgression is indispensable to Locke’s argument about the moral foundations of society as well as the legitimacy, and limits, of government. An insistence that crime is no construct but a punishable violation against the law of nature forces those that demand social justice et pereat mundus to recall that without the rule of law, rights are merely theoretical.