by Scott Veitch. New York, NY: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007, 168pp. Hardback. $160.00. ISBN: 9780415442503. Paper. $44.95. ISBN: 9780415442510.

Reviewed by Kevin M. Wagner, Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University. Email: wagnerkj [at]


Scott Veitch challenges the premise that law always presents a working framework to organize human society in a responsible manner. LAW AND IRRESPONSIBILITY is a studied philosophical look at how law itself can support or even be a cause of human suffering by acting as a systematic framework that endorses actions that cause suffering under the guise of legality. In presenting law as neither the representation of fairness nor even neutral in the arena of human responsibility, Veitch challenges an important paradigm in the legal studies discipline.

The notion that the application of law can result in outcomes that are unexpected is not new. Critical theorists and legal theorists have explored such topics in the past. Veitch’s contribution is to take this notion and make a plausible case that law can not only result in unforeseen developments, but as a system, can be the very foundation of irresponsibility and suffering. In making this assertion, Veitch is careful to concede that all implications of the application of law do not produce massive damage, but rather that they can, and on important occasions almost certainly do, result in the production of significant harms.

Veitch explores his ideas with an analytical framework supported by a series of examples that demonstrate how lawful actions, which he argues are often irresponsible, ultimately cause human suffering. The examples are the strength of the book, as they drive home his thesis by grounding them in a real world circumstance. The initial example, the United Nations sanctions regime in Iraq, is particularly effective. The sanctions were authorized through the appropriate legal mechanism of the United Nations and resulted in the death of 500,000 Iraqi children.

Veitch illustrates two key principles in this example. Initially, he asserts that the sanctions regime was not illegal, but expressly legal and authorized under international law. There was no criminal action as defined by the law, although the extent of death is significant. The law itself legitimizes the sanctions, removing not just criminal responsibility, but eliminating any basis for finding a responsible party.

It is in this principle of responsibility that Veitch makes his strongest case. Beyond the outcome-oriented analysis, Veitch asserts effectively that the legal regime itself is effective in generating conditions of extreme harm while creating a circumstance where there is almost no responsibility attributed to any party, including a state level actor. As noted in the Iraqi sanction regime, the law not only insulates the actor, it defines the actor as a defender of human rights while authorizing actions that [*976] result in massive harm to the human rights of thousands of people.

Both the strength and weakness of the book is Veitch’s thorough and fairly nuanced review of the theoretical underpinnings of his premise. Once understood, the ideas are interesting and provocative, and Veitch’s often painstaking examination lends credence to his approach. Nonetheless, the book itself is not lengthy, yet the argument becomes fairly repetitive by the book’s midpoint. There is something to be said for a thorough review of terms, definitions and premises, but at times the minutiae seem to overwhelm the theory itself and vitiate the more visceral impact of the ideas. When Veitch illustrates through example, the ideas gain depth and the book is effective.

LAW AND IRRESPONSIBILITY should have appeal to political theorists in the area of law and society. While Veitch uses empirical examples effectively, the primary substance of the book is theoretical and the methodology is fundamental analytical argument. This limits the appeal to students of policy and political behavior since it lacks any real measures. As a result, I would recommend this book as a supplement to graduate and upper division jurisprudence or law and society classes as a means to engage students on the meaning of law and its role in defining and constructing societal behavior. It is a strong theoretical contribution to the study of law and behavior and stands as a meaningful and innovative contribution to the discipline.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Kevin M. Wagner.

Law and Irresponsibility: On the Legitimation of Human Suffering