University of Cambridge, Faculty of Law

Philosophy of Criminal Law (LL.M.)


This paper explores some of the principles and doctrines underlying the criminal law. In particular, it seeks to introduce students to the philosophical (and particularly, ethical) problems that criminal law raises, and to which legal systems presuppose certain answers. Those answers are variously criticised and defended in the course, and the principal aim of the paper is to impart a sense of the philosophical complexity of the criminal law.

More specifically:

  • The paper will introduce the philosophical analysis of the criteria of criminal liability. A distinctive feature of the criminal law is that a conviction has intrinsic significance: characteristically, it betokens culpability for doing a prohibited act. If so, we have reason to consider the criteria for responsibility and blame. The paper aims to impart a deeper appreciation of these concepts and their constituent elements.
  • The paper also considers the controversial topic of criminalisation. When should the criminal sanction be deployed? Are there any principles which can help us address the question of criminalisation? Should we exhaust other approaches to a perceived wrong before resorting to the criminal law?
  • The paper will also consider the philosophical, political and ethical dilemmas raised by the institution of punishment. When (if ever) is it legitimate to punish wrongdoers, and why? What grounds the State’s power to punish wrongdoers?

This course is taught in seminars and as such it is hoped that to some extent the coverage can be tailored to reflect the interests of the participants. A draft list of topics to be covered is included below:


  1. Analysis and Definition of Crime

Criminal Responsibility and Criminal Liability

  1. The Voluntary Act Requirement
  2. Conceptions of Culpability
  3. Intention
  4. Recklessness and Negligence
  5. Strict Liability and Moral Luck
  6. Omissions
  7. Complicity


  1. The Harm Principle
  2. Wrongs and Crimes
  3. Criminalisation, Legitimacy and the State
  4. Mediating Principles


  1. Classical Retributivism and its Problems
  2. von Hirsch’s Theory of Punishment
  3. Punishment and the State
  4. International Penal Institutions

There will also be a revision seminar, which will allow students undertaking the course to discuss issues raised during their wider reading around the various topics covered by the paper.