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This paper explores the Offence Principle. It discusses whether two constraints, additional to the criteria stated in conventional analysis, ought to be met before the Offense Principle can be satisfied: (i) that offensive conduct must be a wrong, and (ii) that the conduct must also lead to harm. The nature of the Harm Principle, and its relationship to the Offense Principle, are also considered. The paper suggests that, even if all cases in which offense should be criminalized also involve harm, nonetheless there may be good reasons to retain a separate Offense Principle.
The criminal law presently distinguishes between actions and omissions, and only rarely proscribes failures to avert consequences that it would be an offense to bring about. Why? In recent years it has been persuasively argued by both Glover and Bennett that, celeris paribus, omissions to prevent a harm are just as culpable as are actions which bring that harm about. On the other hand, and acknowledging that hitherto “lawyers have not been very successful in finding a rationale for it,” Tony Honoré has sought to defend the law's differential treatment. He proposes a “distinct-duties theory” that in addition to the general duties we owe to everyone (e.g., not to inflict harm), we also owe distinct duties to a more limited collection of people and associations, specified by features of our relationship with them (we owe, for instance, duties as parents to our own children). Where a distinct duty holds, breach by omission may well be no better than breach by positive action. But absent a distinct duty, omissions, per Honoré, are less culpable. They are mere failures to intervene and improve or rectify things, whereas actions are positive interventions which make things worse. And, thus, the law has good reason to differentiate between them.
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