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Some people are born into privileged situations and some people into poverty. Do you think that those unfortunate enough to be in the second group can sometimes be justified in resorting to crime, say civil disobedience or theft, either through frustration or necessity? And if they were to resort to crime, is it fair to judge and punish them in the same way as more privileged people who might do the same things?

March 2, 2006

Response from Thomas Pogge on March 9, 2006

Extreme contrasts of privilege and poverty are often the result of unjust social institutions such as feudalism and serfdom, for example. In such a context, people in dire poverty may well be justified in violating their society's property laws, in practicing civil disobedience, and even in overthrowing the established order, because those laws and this order lack moral standing. But even in a context of severe social injustice, it is generally not morally permissible to violate any and all laws (e.g., by killing children or by stealing from people even poorer than oneself).

Those administering and enforcing the laws in a seriously unjust society will rarely admit that these laws are seriously unjust and that some violations of them are justified. Still, they ought to reflect on the justice of the laws they apply and enforce and, if they find the justice of some of these laws to be dubious, may well conclude that they ought to punish leniently if at all. They ought also to reflect on the state of mind of the defendant and, if they find her to be motivated by a conscientious and well-founded conviction that she permissibly violated unjust laws, they may again decide on a more lenient punishment or even on acquittal. Even if incorrect, the conscientious and not unreasonable conviction that a law is unjust may be considered an excuse in mitigation of blame and punishment.

Even in a just social context, people may experience severe frustration or great need. In such a context, violating the law is generally not justifiable, but it may nonetheless be excusable in certain cases. It may be excusable, for example, for a single mother to steal a sweet or a small toy because she can ill afford to buy a holiday gift for her child. (This may be excusable to some extent even if it was her own responsibility that she ran out of money before month's end.) In such a case it would be fair to blame and punish her less, if at all, even while a similar theft by a more affluent person is blamed and punished more severely. Here, once again, the relevant difference lies in the defendant's state of mind. Such excuses are recognized in many civilized legal systems.


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