Tadros: Poverty and Criminal Responsibility

Gabrielle Johansson
5 min readOct 27, 2020


Type 3: Critical Engagement

Module 4: When should we hold people responsible for criminalized behavior?

Victor Tadros, in his article on Poverty and Criminal Responsibility claims that the poor — those who are disproportionally subject to the injustices of inequality — have a legitimate claim to subvert the role the state plays in holding them accountable to various crimes. In the beginning of his article, he assumes two things: poverty comes from distributive injustice and that poverty is criminogenic (391). Though both of these claims are sometimes or even generally true, they are heavily contested. Nevertheless, he assumes them as the basis for his argument. Based on his argument, if the state holds the poor responsible for their crimes, they are hypocritical because the state is held to a moral standard along with the poor. In other words, the state is to blame along with the poor person who committed a crime because they have prolonged the systemic inequality which causes the poor poverty. Not only this, but the state would also be complicit in their conviction because they are partly responsible for the defendant’s crime because they created and they maintain the conditions which establish or maintain the unjust inequalities which cause poverty and thus crime. In addition, though not central to the paper, Tadros says that “as victims of injustice, [the poor] have legitimate reasons to distance themselves from state practices of responsibility” (410). According to Tadros, the hypocrisy and complicity of the state undermine its own legitimacy to find the poor responsible for their crimes (393, 409). Tadros maintains that the poor shouldn’t be held responsible though they often are. Tadros says that when they are, the state and those who witness the conviction of a poor person should be concerned and should do everything they can to change the system in favor of the poor who are unjustly subject to poverty which is criminogenic (413).

I found this paper to be problematic in multiple ways. Before I get into them, it’s relevant to note that two of my main concerns were actually addressed by Tadros:

“When we express the idea that we should not hold the poor responsible for the crimes that they commit we are likely to be faced with two responses. One is that the poor have adequate opportunities to do things other than what they did… the poor are not compelled to commit crimes… The other is that in failing to hold the poor responsible for what they have done, we patronize them. We act as though they do not count as full moral agents” (413).

Tadros did not respond in substantial depth to these concerns to the extent I don’t think his argument are justified in light of them.

Firstly, I didn’t feel like his argument concerning the poor and their morality was true or convincing. Tadros’ entire argument stemmed from the idea that we are less able to hold poor people accountable “because they lack the basic cognitive, moral and volitional capacities that are required to be regarded as responsible people in general” (391). Though he clarifies that we probably shouldn’t jump to such a conclusion, he consistently maintains that the poor are victims of systemic inequalities by them they lack the same opportunities and/or choices that others are able to have (392–393). This is in the background of Tadros’ discussion and, though it was not specifically maintained throughout the paper, the assumption that the poor are always victims is not only potentially degrading but simply false. In addition, one of the first assumptions noted above that Tadros uses as a basis for his argument is that poverty is criminogenic. Though it is generally true that poverty is shortly accompanied by crime, there is much debate about whether or not this is a causal relationship or a correlative relationship. I’m not an expert on this at all but I do know that it is a very complex issue that does not have clear answers.

Secondly, a sense of responsibility is usually something that affirms our moral autonomy similar to how guilt is indicative of a moral conscious. For example, responsibility — that actions have bad or good consequences and those consequences are linked back to an individual — is a very important concept for children to understand because it teaches them how to be responsible, respectful, and moral human beings.

To not attribute responsibility to the poor — or anyone — for crimes that they commit on the basis that the government has perpetuated inequality is firstly, completely impractical, secondly, it would rob the poor of their moral agency (like Tadros even mentioned), and thirdly, it is counterproductive. It is impractical because, if the poor are not found responsible, and therefore not guilty, crime will skyrocket and, because it’s impossible to say that all poor people would deserve pardon, many criminals would use systemic inequality and the government as the scapegoat for the reason for their crimes. It would rob the poor of their moral agency because it would still be the government who defines who they are/what they are only it is more deterministic and there would be less room for individualism and autonomy than before. Thirdly, it is counterproductive because if you would eliminate responsibility for the poor on the basis of the government’s illegitimacy crime would just rise thus making poverty rise — it doesn’t solve any of the systemic inequalities, instead it would heighten it to new and unprecedented rates. Tadros’ assessment of the poor’s responsibility just isn’t justified on this basis.

Tadros, Victor. (2009). Poverty and Criminal Responsibility. J Value Inquiry, 43:391–413. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-009-9180-x.

PS: I was confused about this can anyone help clarify what he means in this paragraph:

“In considering the instrumental value of convictions, there is a range of criminal offences the existence of which cannot plausibly be defended as public wrongs done to victims. Particularly important are offences of security which are designed to enhance the security of the population as a whole. Possession offences are the most common, but even offences such as murder and rape have security as part of their rationale. Many of our offences ought to be repealed or rewritten in the light of normative concerns. One such concern is based on the value of security itself. It is questionable whether some of our criminal offences enhance security at all. Some clearly erode security of a kind, such as security from interference by the state in the form of wrongful investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. Furthermore, some offences, particularly in the area of terrorism, erode the security of people who have a relatively low level of security already” (Tadros 412).