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Sympathy with the poor: theories of punishment in Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith

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Grotius argued that it was sometimes permissible to excuse from punishment those who commit crimes out of extreme poverty. The grounds for doing so were separate from the grounds of the right of necessity. Leniency was possible because the seriousness of the crime and the degree of guilt of the offender were separate considerations. Punishment should be related to guilt, which, according to Grotius, was partly a matter of the circumstances and motives of the offender. He thought there were some circumstances, such as extreme poverty, which people cannot be reasonably expected to endure. Smith's retributivist theory ruled out the possibility of moderating punishment for crimes committed out of extreme poverty. Justice requires the self-command to endure our personal hardships rather than harm the innocent. Smith was optimistic about the capacity of people to endure harsh conditions and also about the possibility of improving them.
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Keywords: Adam Smith; Charity; Distribution; Grotius; Invisible Hand; Justice; Leniency; Moral Sense Theory; Natural Law; Property; Pufendorf; Punishment; Resentment; Right of Necessity; Rights; Sociability; Stoics; Theory of Moral Sentiments; Wealth of Nations

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Economic Studies, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL. Email:[email protected]

Publication date: February 1, 1999

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