Dr Ambrose Y. K. Lee

Senior Lecturer in Legal Theory, Director of Postgraduate Research (Progression)
B.A. (HKU), M.Litt. (St Andrews), Ph.D. (Stirling), AFHEA.
+44 (0)1483 686224
27 AB 05
Office Hrs for 2023/2024 1st Term: Tues & Weds 1000-1200.

Academic and research departments

School of Law.



Research interests


Postgraduate research supervision




(With Alex Sarch) The Moral Prerequisites of the Criminal Law: Legal Moralism and the Problem of Mala Prohibita (Cambridge University Press, Nov 2023) 

Abstract: Modern states criminalize many actions that intuitively do not seem morally wrong, particularly in the context of regulating complex industries or activities. Are mala prohibita offences of this kind fundamentally mistaken? Many criminal law scholars have thought so and argued that conduct must be morally wrong to be legitimately criminalised. This Element examines the longstanding debates about whether this idea is right, and what we would lose if we either abandoned the criminal law's close connection to morality or our use of the very useful tool of mala prohibita crimes. This Element argues that there are a range of promising arguments for reconciling mala prohibita offences with the wrongness constraint on criminalisation. Thus, it seeks to shed light on the aims of the criminal law and moral prerequisites for legitimate criminalization.


"Retributive Justice", Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (Jan 2023)


YUK KONG AMBROSE LEE Retributive Justice, In: Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy
Ambrose Y. K. Lee (2019)Arguing Against the Expressive Function of Punishment: Is the Standard Account that Insufficient?, In: Law and Philosophy38(4)pp. 359-385 Springer Netherlands

This paper critically appraises the arguments that have been offered for what can be called ‘the expressive function of punishment’. According to this view, what distinguishes punishment from other kinds of non-punitive hard treatment is that punishment conveys a censorial/reprobative message about what the punished has done, and that this expressive function should therefore be accepted as part of the nature and definition of punishment. Against this view, this papers argues that the standard account of punishment, according to which punishment is a kind of hard treatment that is imposed on an alleged offender in response to her alleged wrongdoing, can already properly account for punishment and distinguish it from other kinds of hard treatment when it is properly clarified and understood. Thus there is no need to accept the expressive function of punishment in addition to the standard account when it comes to the nature and definition of punishment.

Yuk Kong Lee (2016)Defending a Communicative Theory of Punishment: The Relationship between Hard Treatment and Amends, In: Oxford Journal of Legal Studies37(1)pp. 217-237 Oxford University Press

According to communicative theories of punishment, legal punishment is pro tanto justified because it communicates the censure that offenders deserve for their crimes. The aim of this article is to offer a modest defence for a particular version of a communicative theory. This version builds on the one that has been advanced by Antony Duff. According to him, legal punishment should be understood as a kind of (secular) penitential burden that is placed upon offenders to censure them for their crimes, with the aims that they will then come to repent, reform themselves and reconcile with those whom they have wronged. This article departs from Duff’s version, however, by arguing that the penitential burdens in question should be understood more specifically in terms of the amends that offenders ought to make to apologise for their criminal wrongdoings. The article then attempts to address three potential objections to this revised version of the communicative theory.

Yuk Kong Lee (2014)Legal Coercion, Respect & Reason-Responsive Agency, In: Ethical Theory and Moral Practice17(5)pp. 847-859 Springer Netherlands

Legal coercion seems morally problematic because it is susceptible to the Hegelian objection that it fails to respect individuals in a way that is ‘due to them as men’. But in what sense does legal coercion fail to do so? And what are the grounds for this requirement to respect? This paper is an attempt to answer these questions. It argues that (a) legal coercion fails to respect individuals as reason-responsive agents; and (b) individuals ought to be respected as such in virtue of the fact that they are human beings. Thus it is in this sense that legal coercion fails to treat individuals with the kind of respect ‘due to them as men’.

Yuk Kong Lee (2011)Co-National and Cosmopolitan Obligations towards Foreigners, In: Politics31(3)pp. 159-166 SAGE Publications

This article specifically argues against those who think that, by appealing to Thomas Hurka's argument for co-national obligations in his ‘The Justification of National Partiality’, these co-national obligations take priority over certain cosmopolitan obligations towards foreigners, when the shared history of the co-nationals is (a) a history of shared suffering, (b) a shared history of mutual benefit or (c) a shared history of jointly benefiting others. I shall argue that if this is the case, then Hurka's account surprisingly gives us a reason to fulfil our cosmopolitan obligations towards foreigners first before fulfilling our special obligations towards co-nationals.

Yuk Kong Lee (2016)An Expressive Theory of Punishment. By BILL WRINGE. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. viii + 188. Price £45.83.), In: The Philosophical Quarterly67(267)pp. 418-421 Oxford University Press

Drawing on some of his previously published work, this book constitutes to date Bill Wringe’s most systematic and comprehensive attempt to develop and argue for what he refers to as a ‘denunciatory theory’ of punishment. Like most other expressive theories of punishment, Wringe’s denunciatory theory holds that (i) what distinguishes punishment from other kinds of harsh treatments is that it expresses certain messages of disapproval; and (ii) that it is in virtue of the kind of messages of disapproval it expresses that punishment is to be justified, at least in the pro tanto sense (p. 23). In particular, according to Wringe’s denunciatory theory, punishment is justifiable in virtue of it expressing a message of disapproval that ‘certain norms are in force and that transgressions against them are viewed seriously’ (p. 24), and this message is directed not just to the offender but also to the wider political community in which the offender is a member of (pp. 56-58). This contrasts with other expressive theories of punishment; for example Duff’s communicative theory, according to which the message of disapproval is directed primarily to the offender with the aim of inducing the offender to repent for his or her wrongdoing.

Yuk Kong Lee (2013)Public Wrongs and the Criminal Law, In: Criminal Law and Philosophy9(1)pp. 155-170 Springer Netherlands

This paper is about how best to understand the notion of ‘public wrongs’ in the longstanding idea that crimes are public wrongs. By contrasting criminal law with the civil laws of torts and contracts, it argues that ‘public wrongs’ should not be understood merely as wrongs that properly concern the public, but more specifically as those which the state, as the public, ought to punish. It then briefly considers the implications that this has on criminalization.

With the humongous amount and variety of ethical cosmopolitan positions in the contemporary literature, Stan van Hooft’s Cosmopolitanism is a great introduction to those who would like to be acquainted with the position, as it argues for 21 essential features in ethical cosmopolitanism ((19-20); I shall not list them out here due to limited space). The area that is covered by this list is extremely extensive: partiality, universal human rights, what we owe to distant others, the self-determination of peoples and nation-states, just war theory, international relations, global governance, toleration etc.

YUK KONG AMBROSE LEE (2021)Blameworthiness and the Outcomes of One’s Actions, In: Criminal law and philosophy

There are at least two ways to argue for the view that the outcome of one’s actions does not affect one’s blameworthiness. The first way appeals to the ‘Control Principle’ while the second way relies on what it means to be blameworthy. The focus of this paper is on a recent attempt at pursuing this second way that relies on an account of blameworthiness dubbed the ‘Engagement View’. This paper argues, however, that the Engagement View alone is insufficient to show why the outcomes of one’s actions does not affect one’s blameworthiness. It argues that if blame is understood more robustly as involving reactive attitudes like resentment and indignation, then it turns out the Engagement View can also give us reasons for the contrary view. This paper ends by drawing out some general implications that this has on our understanding of blameworthiness. 

Yuk Kong Ambrose Lee (2022)Constitutive luck, Criminality, and Distributive Justice, In: Criminal Justice Theory Blog Wordpress

In this post, I want to explore how the presence of luck in one being the kind of person that one is affects the way we should think about criminal justice. Retributive justice – the idea that justice requires wrongdoers receive their just deserts – looms large when thinking about criminal justice. However, I am interested in another kind of justice for the purposes of this post: distributive justice, understood broadly as the just distribution of political, social and economic goods. There are many ways in which issues in criminal justice and distributive justice bear on each other. For example: one might argue that distributive injustices undermine the state’s authority to punish,[1] or that criminality is a legitimate basis for withholding certain political and social rights.[2] More empirically, one might also ask whether poverty and other kinds of social deprivations can contribute to criminal behaviour. I shall argue, however, that in addition to these, there is a more fundamental role for distributive justice to play when thinking about criminal justice. More specifically, once we properly recognize the presence of luck in one being the kind of person that one is, then we should see criminality as a proper object of concern for distributive justice, just like natural disadvantages or contingent social circumstances in the economic and political domains. This post will proceed as follows: First, I shall explain the luck that is involved in one being the kind of person that one is. I shall then discuss what distributive justice is generally concerned about and why that implies we should see criminality as a proper object of concern for distributive justice, alongside the other natural disadvantages and contingent social circumstances that are typically accepted as the proper objects of concern for distributive justice. In the last two sections, I shall address a possible criticism and end by briefly discussing the practical implications of my view.

As a normative theorist working in a centre with a field of research that has such a strong empirical component, I am always confronted with the question of what role, if any, should ‘public opinion’ play in the kind of normative theoretical work that I do. Two contrasting positions usually present themselves here.

YUK KONG AMBROSE LEE (2020)Beyond Punishment?: A Normative Account of the Collateral Legal Consequences of Convictions. By ZACHARY HOSKINS. (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 264p.), In: Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

“Compared with the enormous amount of attention moral and legal philosophers have for centuries devoted to the justification of legal punishment itself… and more recently to questions of justified criminalisation, the permissibility of collateral consequences has received relatively little consideration. I suggest it is time for this to change” (p. 222). These last few sentences of this book summarise succinctly the aim, significance and force of the book. While significant work has been done in recent years by many sociologists, criminologists, activists, legal scholars and practitioners on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions (examples can be found in the footnotes on p. 6), much less work has been done on the more general philosophical question of whether the imposition of formal legal collateral consequences can be morally justifiable, and if so, under what conditions. As far as I know, this book is to date the most comprehensive and systematic attempt at tackling this philosophical question head on.