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Preventive Justice


Police use a number of strategies that aim to prevent crime from occurring. These vary in how coercive they are. They include:

  • Disruption by arrest
  • Disruption by means of informing subjects of surveillance
  • Detention
  • Location-tracking
  • Criminalization of steps leading to crime

The work at IERG centres on an intuitive idea about the ethics of deploying preventive measures. This is that more serious and more imminent crimes -- other things being equal -- motivate a greater degree of legitimate intrusiveness and coercion on the part of the police in preventing them. This permits the view that very intrusive and liberty-limiting preventive measures are not justified for all crimes, and in particular, that very intrusive and liberty-limiting preventive measures are not justified for low-level crimes. Regarding preventive measures, the key question is, what counts as a more or a less serious crime? In this context the answer is not obvious. Some people are disproportionately affected by crimes: the socially vulnerable may be greatly affected by what others regard as a minor nuisance. The prevention of some apparently trivial transgressions might have a significant effect on serious crimes, as proposed by the 'broken windows' hypothesis. Understanding better what counts as a serious crime, for policing purposes, would take us some distance towards understanding proper preventive policing ethics.


‘Violation of Privacy and Law: the Case of Stalking’ (Tom Sorell and John Guelke)

There are many kinds of violation of privacy. The human right to privacy is an acknowledgement of only some kinds, and perhaps not the most damaging ones. As articulated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 17, and the associated Human Rights Committee General Comment 16, the right to privacy is a protection against surveillance of one’s home, monitoring of correspondence, and attacks on one’s reputation. Protection against surveillance, monitoring and attacks by whom? Human rights theory and practice focus primarily on abuses of state power. They tend not to take account of disputes between individuals or small scale abuses of power where they fall short of assault. So while Article 17 recognizes natural persons as possible violators of privacy, nosey neighbours, voyeurs, or spouses concerned with infidelity probably lie well outside its main ambit. Its focus is on arbitrary official intrusion and disruption, disproportionate police surveillance, and disproportionate data retention by governments. Encroachments by the authorities on parental rights to determine the education and religion of their children and even the size of their families are also included. In all of these cases it is against the state that privacy needs defending.

In this paper we shall be concerned with violations of privacy by agents other than governments. We shall be concerned with apolitical invasions of apolitical privacy—“apolitical” in the sense of invasions which are detached from either the invader’s or the invaded person’s playing a citizenly role – as voter, say—or an activist role in a political party, opposition movement. We also distinguish apolitical invasions of privacy from invasions of privacy of those holding political office, and from surveillance by a state apparatus or the personal representative of a state apparat

‘Conceptualizing Serious Crime’ (Tom Sorell)

What counts as a more or a less serious crime? This paper explores that question in the light of several plausible claims about how police rightly operate: (1) orthodox preventive policing measures are more justified the more serious the crime to be prevented; (2) the more serious the crime, and the more imminent it is thought to be on the basis of evidence, the more intrusive and liberty-limiting the preventive measure can be–other things being equal; (3) very intrusive and liberty-limiting preventive measures are not justified for all crimes; (4) very intrusive and liberty-limiting preventive measures are not justified for low-level crimes.

‘Presuming Harmlessness and Preventing Serious Harm’ (Christopher Nathan)

Should the state presume that people are innocent? Harmless? What would that mean? Some express scepticisim about ‘preventive policing’ and ‘preventing justice’ on the grounds that it contravenes the proper attitude that states ought to show towards their citizens. I express a sceptical note about such objections. The grounds of proper limits to preventive justice are more mundane.

‘Police Scrutiny, Ethics, and Imposition of Risk’ (Christopher Nathan)

In specifying rules limiting police scrutiny, there is a tendency to focus on the limits of legitimate scrutiny, case by case. For example, one might claim that in order to enact a stop and search procedure, should an officer have ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an individual is carrying a weapon. I will argue that the distribution of police scrutiny of citizens is also of ethical concern, because scrutiny involves an imposition of a risk. This distributive element is a logically separate dimension that does not receive the attention it deserves.


Audio: What, if anything, is wrong with surveillance? How does it affect privacy? Why value privacy anyway? Tom Sorell explains his position in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.