Harm and Culpability

By A. P. Simester; A. T. H. Smith | Go to book overview
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Coercion, Threats, and the Puzzle of Blackmail

Grant Lamond*

A complete theory of the criminal law must be located within wider philosophical perspectives, particularly those provided by moral and practical philosophy. The law has special institutional demands which fashion both its content and process, but underlying these constraints is the role of the law in giving effect to those values which it is obligatory or desirable to uphold. The enterprise of criminal law enforcement presupposes the validity of moral requirements. Hence the concern of criminal law theorists with the normative standards which warrant particular offences.

The aim of this paper is to demonstrate the value of setting problems of criminal law theory within the broader perspective of practical philosophy. Practical philosophy concerns the nature of human action -- both individual and collective -- and the reasoning which (either explicitly or implicitly) underlies action. A clearer appreciation of the nature of practical reasoning can help to explain some of the specific features of the criminal law. As an illustration of this general thesis I will discuss some of the more important features of coercion, coercive threats, and consent in order to show how a better understanding of these can assist in explicating an intriguing puzzle within the criminal law presented by the offence of blackmail.

The puzzle of blackmail arises in the following way. Statutory definitions of the crime extend its coverage to situations where one person demands money from another in exchange for not revealing some secret. What is puzzling about this is that in many cases of this kind the actual revelation of the secret would be quite legal. Revealing an affair to someone's spouse is legal, but threatening to do so unless paid a sum of money is a standard case of blackmail. If it would be legal to ask another for money, and also legal to

I would like to thank John Gardner, David Kell, and Andrew Simester for their comments on earlier versions of this paper, and also the participants in seminars held in Cambridge in 1994.


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