Punishment and Democratic Rights: A Case Study in Non-ideal Penal Theory

  • Steven Swartzer
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Ethics and Public Policy book series (PASEPP)


In the United States, convicted offenders frequently lose the right to vote, at least temporarily. Drawing on the common observation that citizens of color lose democratic rights at disproportionately high rates, this chapter argues that this punishment is problematic in non-ideal societies because of the way in which it diminishes the political power of marginalized groups and threatens to reproduce patterns of domination and subordination, when they occur. This chapter then uses the case of penal disenfranchisement to illustrate how idealized discussions of deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution often ignore the relationship between punishment and social/political power, and thus systematically obscure morally significant aspects of our broader penal practices.



I would like to thank audiences at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s 2015 PPE/Value Theory Workshop, the 2016 Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and the 2016 meeting of Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. I would also like to thank Joshua Blanchard, Allison Fritz, Jennifer Kling, Clare LaFrance, John Lawless, Tim Loughrist, Garreth McMaster, Chris Melenovsky, Adam Thompson, Preston Werner, Mark White, Matt Whitt, Vida Yao, and anonymous referees for enlightening conversations about some of this paper’s central ideas, or for feedback on previous drafts.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Swartzer
    • 1
  1. 1.University of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA

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