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This article addresses the theoretical difficulty of justifying the use of penal coercion in circumstances of marked, unjustified social inequality. The intuitive belief behind the text is that in such a context – that of an indecent State – justifying penal coercion becomes very problematic, particularly when directed against the most disfavored members of society. This affirmation requires a high degree of nuance which I will try to furnish progressively. In any case, before continuing it seems appropriate to delimit in greater detail the problem itself.

In the first place, I would hold that there is no more important discussion in current political philosophy than that of the legitimate use of the State’s coercive power. Such reflection is central to some of the primary works produced by the discipline over the past century (Rawls 1971). Hence the value of questions such as whether to obey political authority when one dissents; whether to pay taxes destined to the financing of war; or when civil disobedience or conscientious objection are justified (actions that, it should be noted, acknowledge the general validity of criminal law).


Paper delivered at SELA 2010, Insecurity, Democracy, and Law, in Santiago de Chile as part of the panel on “The Limits of Criminal Law.”