This essay reflects on contemporary justifications for the grading of crimes, especially the conception that the gravity of crimes is rooted in “desert,” understood to depend particularly on the offender's state of mind and to a lesser extent on the harm done or threatened to society.
Drawing on Dante's Inferno , the essay shows how the gravity of crimes is socially constructed. For reasons rooted in the sociopolitical forces, as well as the philosophy and law of his day, Dante found the crimes most deserving of punishment to be those of betrayal of trust. He conceived such crimes to be the most deliberate and to do the most damage to the social fabric. Contemporary law has found that crimes of betrayal are generally less deserving of punishment than crimes of violence; the essay shows how social and historical forces, including even the traditions upon which Dante drew, have shaped this choice. In the course of grading crimes in this way, the law has altered its conceptions of “intent” as well as of harm to society so radically that the notion of “desert” has lost much of its coherence. The importance of trust in modern society, moreover, has been misunderstood in the contemporary grading of crimes.