Christopher Heath (Kit) Wellman, Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, recently finished a four-week visit at the Freedom Center.  While in residence, Wellman was doing research for a book project on forfeiture. 

In his 2017 book, Rights Forfeiture and Punishment, Wellman argued that only a rights-based analysis can satisfactorily explain the permissibility of punishment, because the type of justification we seek for punishment must demonstrate that punishment is permissible, and it would be permissible only if it violated no one’s rights.  On Wellman’s view, punishment is permissible just in case the wrongdoer has forfeited her rights against punishment by culpably violating (or at least attempting to violate) the rights of others.  The various general justifying aims on which theorists have traditionally focused (like deterrence or retributive justice) may well explain why we should want a system of criminal law, but they cannot on their own explain its permissibility. 

Another area in which forfeiture looms large is the morality of defensive force.  Leading ethicists like Helen Frowe, Jeff McMahan and Jonathan Quong all agree that one can forfeit one’s rights against defensive force, but they disagree about what triggers this forfeiture and what follows from this forfeiture.  Theorists in this area also disagree about whether and when defensive force may be permissible in the absence of forfeiture.  Most concede that an individual’s right might be overridden by sufficiently weighty considerations, but there is fierce disagreement as to whether a potential victim could ever have an agent-relative prerogative to use defensive force against someone who has not forfeited any of her rights.  In addition to weighing in on these debates, Wellman hopes to explore potential connections between forfeiture against punishment and forfeiture against defensive force. 

As Wellman explains, “One of the reasons I am excited about this project is that I am curious to see what implications my views on punishment might have for the morality of defensive force and vice versa.  Does a wrongdoer who was exposed to disproportionate defensive force at least partially reclaim her rights against punishment, for instance, such that what ordinarily would have been a fitting penalty would in her case be a disproportionately harsh punishment?”