Stewart on “Overdetermined Atrocities”

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to an excellent new article by James Stewart (UBC; currently a Global Hauser Fellow at NYU) that is forthcoming in the Journal of International Criminal Justice.  Here is the abstract of the article, entitled “Overdetermined Atrocities”:

An event is overdetermined if there are multiple sufficient causes for its occurrence. A firing squad is a classic illustration. If eight soldiers are convened to execute a prisoner, they can all walk away afterwards in the moral comfort that “I didn’t really make a difference; it would have happened without me.” The difficulty is, if we are only responsible for making a difference to harm occurring in the world, each of the soldiers is right — none made, either directly or through others, an essential contribution to the death. In many respects, this dilemma is the leitmotif for individual responsibility in a globalized world, where criminal harm is so frequently occasioned by collectives. In order to assess the various solutions offered for the overdetermination problem in criminal theory, this paper reconsiders arguments for and against requiring causation in criminal responsibility, competing theoretical accounts of causation and the various unsatisfactory explanations for overdetermination presently on offer. While the paper uses examples from international criminal justice as illustrations, it concludes that overdetermination is a central moral problem of our time. A range of significant consequences follow for the theory and practice of international criminal law.

Causation is one of the most challenging issues in international criminal law, and Stewart’s article makes a significant contribution to our understanding of it.  He deserves our thanks.

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