The logic seems to be that if you drive fast, there is a (considerably) higher probability that you will end up in an accident, which could hurt others. Hence you need to be punished.

What type of logic/ethics is this inherently? Because based on what I just wrote above, it does not seem very well-defined. For example, does it mean we should punish people who convert to Islam because that increases the probability that they commit terrorism? Or punish transgenders who want to become men, because that increases the probability of their committing .... well, literally any crime you can think of (since men are more likely to be criminals)? Or punish people who watch sports, because that increases the probability of their becoming hooligans and thus engaging in violent acts?

  • 2
    You could widen this to be "How is it ethical to use punishment to encourage conformance." That covers everything from speeding tickets to spankings to the death penalty. I think it would be also highly related to an answer to "How ethical is it to punish. full stop." I think the answers build up from that generic one towards the specific ones you mention. If you believe it is never ethical to punish, then it will be hard to arrive at the conclusion that speeding tickets are ethical.
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 8, 2017 at 19:01
  • To me the cases you mention can be distinguished in terms of how proximate the cause is to the harm (or to the social good) plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-law
    – Dave
    Aug 8, 2017 at 20:37
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    I know it's something that gets quoted way too often, to the point that it's almost trite, but you might be over looking the fact that correlation doesn't always imply causation. For your example of transgender men, men do not commit more crimes because they're men, that is a correlation but not a causation. Accidents do happen because you are driving too fast. There's probably a connection between hooligans destroying property and alcohol consumption more so than just watching sports. There's a need for more nuance when analyzing this topic.
    – Not_Here
    Aug 9, 2017 at 3:54
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    Most classical philosophies of law argued that punishment is the compensation for acting against the law, and by that violating the Rule of Law itself.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 9, 2017 at 21:32
  • @Not_Here "Accidents do happen because you are driving too fast." - This view is the problem: It is too intuitive to make rational reasoning about it seem worthwhile. In fact, the opposite claim is also partially true: "You were driving too fast because you had an accident." This comes from flawed ex ante accident 'analysis', where often the real cause for the accident is not immediately visible (you may have been distracted for a second - hard to prove) but you were going a little too fast, thus this 'must' be the cause. Case closed.
    – JimmyB
    Apr 25, 2018 at 10:22

5 Answers 5


You have elevated the risk of death and injury unacceptably

Criminal laws exist to keep people from committing actions that society has deemed to be unacceptable. There are plenty of other laws but criminal laws in particular is all about stopping people from doing things we do not want anyone to do. Most of these criminal laws concern damage/injury, to a persons body, mental state, honour, economy, property, rights... and they concern the injury after it has happened.

Some criminal laws however are about recklessness, where injury has not actually occurred, but where you nevertheless have needlessly — and unacceptably — elevated the risk of injury. Reckless endangerment for instance is one such example.

Speeding falls into this category. Speeding is a form of reckless endangerment. We know it is endangerment simply from science and statistics: increased speed lowers available reaction times; makes it harder to exercise control over the vehicle in an emergency (like having to stop before a sudden obstacle); and increases the amount to destructive energy and force in case of a collision/rollover.

That is the ethics behind this law: we punish and try to prevent recklessness before it does injury.

Is this arbitrary? Somewhat, but not entirely. And in any case, for every piece of road there has been a decision made: this is the maximum allowable speed here; if people travel at or below that speed, we are prepared to take the consequences of that and possibly find other methods by which to mitigate the damage done.

Most importantly, people have made the judgement call and said: "this speed limit is where we think that the danger will start to outweigh the use of travelling faster".

Now about your counter-examples:

  • Converting to Islam No, there is no-one — anywhere — that can point to that the risk of becoming a terrorist when converting to Islam is so great that this outweighs the human rights to freedom of thought and freedom of faith.

  • Transitioning to becoming male Again: no-one can point to any fact that says that existing as a male makes you unacceptably prone to crime.

  • Watching sports And again... you cannot find the facts for that, not in the same tangible and clear way that you can with speeding.

By comparison.... there are some other things — besides speeding — that we have deemed too risky and likely to cause big problems and/or injury, like playing around with explosives, toxins, and some weapons, or driving/piloting/doing surgery/conducting a train/practising law/operating a nuclear reactor without a license.

So the ethics is simply this: we — as a community — have made a judgement call, about where the limit is, the limit when need and utility no longer justify risk and injury.

  • This answer is on the right track, but consider editing the first bolded part. "Needlessly" opens a can of worms in that very few human activities are really necessary. We don't really need to drive cars at all (since we know that, as a society, by doing so we are condemning tens of thousands of people to death each year). It's more a matter of disproportionate probable harm relative to the benefit.
    – Chelonian
    Jun 7, 2018 at 14:01
  • @Chelonian Edited
    – MichaelK
    Jun 7, 2018 at 14:09
  • Nonsense. I got a speeding ticket on highway 50 in Nevada once, literally in the middle of nowhere. Not another car in the road. Cop sitting there waiting for speeders. No danger, just revenue collection. It's not about public safety, it's about collecting fines.
    – user4894
    Jun 7, 2018 at 22:14
  • @user4894 So your argument goes: "I once got a speeding ticket. I think that speeding ticket was unjustified, because I think that speed limit was unjustified. Therefore: all speed limits are unjustified". Care to point out yourself what your error in logic was, or must we humiliate you by pointing it out for you? Also: do not be stupid, instead adhere to the speed limit.
    – MichaelK
    Jun 8, 2018 at 9:31
  • @MichaelK Personal attacks aren't appreciated around here. Now to answer your question. I once got a speeding ticket totally unrelated to safety. Even the cop agreed. Therefore it is false that "all speeding tickets are related to safety." Please review logic 101 and have a nice day. Also, take the trouble to inform yourself about the notion of speed traps, and speeding laws as revenue generation tools. There's quite a lot you clearly don't know about the subject of speed laws.
    – user4894
    Jun 8, 2018 at 20:06

This question is a specific instance of the broader ethical question of whether it is ethical to punish a person (via a coercive legal penalty) for behaviour that is risky, but does not actually result in harm. The question could apply equally to speeding, drink-driving, failure to follow safety protocols on a building site, and many other examples.

Most legal theories argue that it is legitimate to punish risky actions even in the absence of actual harm. Such actions may rise to the level of implicit threats of aggression in some cases (e.g., if a person is acting recklessly in a way that is threatening to others). The case of speeding also has an added complication because it occurs on government-owned roads, and hence, failure to adhere to the "rules of the road" set by the government could potentially be considered a trespass (i.e., using a resource without adhering to the conditions imposed by the property-owner).

If you are interested in this broad issue, it would be useful to read some libertarian legal theory, since these theories of law tend to be quite strict on restricting the scope of what is considered a "crime" to genuine aggressions. For this reaon, libertarian theories tend to be the most sceptical of criminalising non-harmful actions, and so it is interesting to read theories on risky non-harmful actions from this perspective. Some introductory information on foundational ethical issues in libertarian legal theory can be found in Rothbard (1998) and Barnett (1998), and there are various other resources that expand on this (see e.g., here).

  • Considering that speed limits, prohibition of drink-driving, and speeding tickets were historically introduced because of rising numbers of (deadly) accidents that harmed third parties and always had significant effects in lowering these numbers, you are walking a razor's edge when arguing about "no actual harm done". The point is not that it is risky, otherwise bungee-jumping, skydiving, smoking, etc. would be prohibited completely. The point is that it is potentially harmful to others, i.e. irresponsible.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 7, 2018 at 11:39
  • Driving in general is potentially harmful to others though Jun 7, 2018 at 11:50
  • @CallumBradbury: I should have made myself more clear: It needlessly endangers others in an irresponsible way, i.e. the personal sphere of others is affected by your irresponsible actions in a way so that your personal freedom cannot outweigh the probability of potential harm you are posing onto others. It is always a matter of proportionality.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 7, 2018 at 12:30
  • @PhilipKlöcking That's a value judgement, some would argue their personal freedom should outweigh the probability of potential harm they are posing onto others - especially if they believe that probability is lower than the laws of society are assuming. The issue is one of benevolent authoritarian control vs personal responsibility, I think. Jun 7, 2018 at 12:39
  • @CallumBradbury: The main issue is the scientifically proven inability of people to estimate the probability (notoriously, and regarding driving especially in form of a bias for overestimating one's own ability). The tale of benevolent authoritarian control is a strowman belied by the statistics. If people were responsible, those rules wouldn't have been enacted.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 7, 2018 at 12:44

The logic seems to be that if you drive fast, there is a (considerably) higher probability that you will end up in an accident, which could hurt others, hence you need to be punished.

I have emphasized one important word here. So, you now ask:

For example, does that mean we should punish people who convert to Islam because that increases the probability that they commit terrorism?

The thing is that terrorism is not an accident. It is conscious choice to be a terrorist. While accident is something outside of human control. So, humans have decided to prohibit the things that are under our control, but that can lead to undesirable consequences lying outside of our control.

So, the logic is following:

  • There is an undesirable event E.

  • E is under our control. All actions leading to E are made consciously.

    • All actions leading to E are prohibited.
  • E is not under our control.

    • There are actions made consciously increasing the probability of E.

    • They are prohibited.

But this is not the only problem in your question.

Or punish transgenders who want to become men, because that increases the probability of them committing .... well, literally any crime you can think of (since men are more likely to be criminals)?

While men are more likely to be criminals, this is not exactly how causation works. That in no way means transgendering changes the probability of someone to be a criminal.

Or punish people who watch sports, because that increases the probability of them becoming hooligans and thus engaging in violent acts?

The same principle applies here. That's not watching sports that increases the probability of being a hooligan. That's just hooligans are more interested in watching sports.


I think the logic is in the context of maintaining order. If person A is constantly speeding at 110 km/h to get to work and not facing consequences when the limit is 50, why should I spend more time on the road and keep going at 50 km/h? Then the next person might even go 150 km/h and someone else who is more confident might want to go 200 km/h. This will just lead to chaos if not regulated and it's guaranteed to be less safe to drive on this road, not just more likely. This is because of the excess maneuvering that will be required by fast vehicles wanting to pass slower moving vehicles.

  • This scenario is not as theoretical as one might assume. It is because that happened and got out of hand (resulting in fatal accidents in rising numbers) that speed limits and tickets were introduced when cars started to get faster. People are notoriously bad at evaluating their own abilities and control in a given situation, especially when they involve high levels of adrenaline (e.g. in Germany, there were no explicit speed limits until 1957).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 7, 2018 at 11:49

I'll skip causation/correlation problems inherent in your examples by reducing your question to:

  1. Should we punish acts that increase the possibility of harm to others? The answer is No.

  2. Should we weigh the pros and cons of punishing certain acts, and should the fact that an act increases the possibility of harm to others count as a pro, weighted according to likelihood, graveness of individual harm, and number of people affected, while other outcomes of the pondered punishment may count as con? The answer is Yes

    1. (Using a technique similar to yours, namely reduction followed by extrapolation) if speeding tickets are moral for possibly discouraging possibly harmful behaviour, should then not my killing a random guy who may (human, same as Hitler) become Hitler2.0 be moral? No.

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