Kicking Bodies and Damning Souls: The Danger of Harming “Innocent” Individuals While Punishing “Delinquent” States

| September 2010
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It is both possible and important to talk about institutions, in the sense of formal organizations, as moral agents in world politics. As moral agents, institutions can be assigned duties. They can also be blamed for failing to discharge them. But how can we respond to this type of failure? Punishment is a prominent and problematic response to institutional delinquency.

This article explores three potential problems with any attempt to punish an institution at the corporate level, each of which focuses on what such an attempt risks doing to the institution’s individual human constituents. I label these potential problems ”guilt by association,” ”misdirected harm” and ”overspill.” I illustrate each by turning to the danger of harming ”innocent” individuals while ostensibly punishing ”delinquent” states through organized violence, drawing on examples of discrepancies between the justifications for punitive action and the ultimate objects of harm in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In conclusion, I argue that particular forms of punishment cannot represent morally coherent responses to culpability that is located at the corporate level of an institution. Punitive war waged against the ”delinquent” state, when responsibility for harm and wrongdoing is not distributive amongst its individual members, provides an extreme and consequential case of such incoherence.

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Category: Article, International Law and Human Rights, Issue 24.3

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