Friday, February 17, 2017 - 12:30pm to 2:00pm
Solarium (Room FA2), Falconer Hall, 84 Queen's Park



Daniel Viehoff
New York University Philosophy Department

Legitimately Punishing the Innocent and
Other Puzzles About Officially Inflicted Harm

Friday, February 17, 2017
12:30 – 2:00
Solarium (room FA2), Falconer Hall
84 Queen’s Park 

It is widely held that at least some officials have duties to follow the rules of properly constituted political and legal institutions even if, in doing so, they intentionally inflict harm on an innocent victim who ordinarily has a moral right against such harm. For instance, the following three claims about the criminal justice system seem to be accepted by many:

1. Innocent people normally have a right not to be intentionally harmed.

2. Our criminal justice system inevitably makes mistakes. For instance, police arrest innocent suspects, and courts condemn innocent people to severe punishment. These mistakes inflict intentional (and often very serious) harm on their victims.

3. Police officers, prison wardens, and other officials are (within certain limits) obligated to do their part in enforcing the law even if they thereby intentionally harm innocent people. 

Yet these three claims, though not strictly speaking incompatible, are in tension. They aren’t strictly incompatible: Perhaps the officer, though under a duty to enforce the law, is nonetheless not justified in infringing the victim’s right, but at best excused. Or the officer’s institutionally imposed duty is in fact weighty enough to justify infringing the victim’s right, as a matter of lesser evil. Or perhaps people are somehow liable to suffer harm at the hands of officials (under the right circumstances) even if they are innocent. But each of these claims is either very difficult to defend or incompatible with central features of our legal-political practices surrounding officially inflicted harm. The aim of my paper then is to clarify how the tension may nonetheless be resolved, and what conditions our practices must satisfy to achieve such resolution.   

DANIEL VIEHOFF is an Assistant Professor in NYU's Philosophy Department. He received his BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford, an MPhil in Philosophy from University College London, a PhD in Philosophy from Columbia University, and a JD from the Yale Law School.  Daniel's research focuses on political, legal, and moral philosophy. He is especially interested in questions of political authority and legitimacy, and in democratic theory. Daniel is currently completing a book manuscript on the special duties we have to obey democratically made decisions. In addition he is doing research on the nature of voting rights and the justification of universal enfranchisement, and has served as an expert witness on the ethics of prisoner voting before the British Parliament.  Prior to joining NYU Daniel was a permanent lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at Yale's Political Science Department and a Faculty Fellow at Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics. 

A light lunch will be provided.

 To be added to the paper distribution list, please contact Nadia Gulezko at  For further information, please contact Professor Larissa Katz ( and Professor Sophia Moreau (