Crime and Human Rights (19): Why Do We Impose Criminal Punishment?

It seems so obvious that we must punish criminals that we hardly think about the reasons why. And then when we do think about some of the possible reasons, we find that they are of dubious quality, and we start to wonder whether criminal punishment can be justified at all.

1. Retribution

The first reason that springs to mind is retribution: we impose punishment – i.e. pain, suffering or unpleasant consequences – because that is what criminals deserve. Punishment is a deserved and proportionate “repayment” for the crime that has been done. And indeed, the fact that wrongdoers deserve some form of proportionate punishment or unpleasantness seems to be a deep-seated intuition. But if we want to use this notion of retribution as a justification of criminal punishment, we need to define what exactly it is that a particular criminal deserves. Because if it turns out that we can’t decide, in a non-arbitrary way, what it is that a criminal deserves, then it’s useless to place desert and proportional repayment at the heart of the justification of criminal punishment.

And we can’t decide. We can’t determine which punishment fits which crime. Retribution naturally tends towards lex talionis (an eye for an eye). For two reasons: first because that is the easy answer to the question of deserved punishment, and second because of the origins of the word “retribution” (retribuere in Latin means to restore, to give back). However, the brutality of lex talionis is no longer acceptable these days, which is why retribution theorists have tried to find another, less brutal way of determining the deserved punishment. Proportionality is then considered to be a just retributive principle: the punishment must not be equal to the crime, but the gravity of the punishment must be proportional to the severity of the crime; more serious crimes should entail more severe punishments.

Proportionality, like the element of desert in the basic structure of retribution, is hard to argue with, but it’s also useless. It can justify any type of punishment because it doesn’t provide a non-arbitrary starting point or end point of severity. Hence, it fails to answer the basic question raised by retribution: which punishment fits which crime? If this question can’t be answered, then retribution can’t be a justification of criminal punishment.

True, retribution can still be used negatively: some punishments clearly don’t fit the crime, and are not deserved. A $10 dollar fine for a murder, or execution for shoplifting are examples. But a theory of punishment that can only say which punishment are not justifiable is clearly not a complete justification of criminal punishment. After all, such a theory doesn’t exclude the possibility that all punishments are not justifiable.

2. Deterrence

With retribution out of the way, we can now consider an alternative justification of criminal punishment. We may decide to punish criminals because in doing so we instill fear in other – potential – criminals and therefore deter future crime. Punishment is then a means to protect society against crime. It’s a stop sign. And, like retribution, this seems to be, at first sight at least, a convincing justification. Like it is intuitively correct that a criminal deserves some kind of punishment, it is also intuitively convincing that people, when faced with the risk of punishment, will have a strong incentive to abstain from crime.

However, we again see that the initial appeal of this justification doesn’t survive closer scrutiny. First, there’s a lack of conclusive empirical evidence for the existence of a deterrent effect. Even the strongest possible punishment – death – doesn’t seem to deter. Part of the reason for this is the fact that crime often isn’t a rational calculation of risks, costs and benefits. And when it is, low conviction rates may have more weight in the criminals’ calculations than the severity or unpleasantness of unlikely punishments.

Another reason why deterrence cannot justify criminal punishment is its inherent immorality: to deter is to use people as means to reduce crime, and that kind of instrumentalization is morally unacceptable.

3. Incapacitation

If we can’t deter, maybe we can incapacitate, and justify criminal punishment on that basis. Incapacitating a criminal allows us to protect society without instrumentalizing the criminal (we don’t use the criminal and his punishment as a fear-instilling mechanism; we simply keep the criminal away from his or her future victims).

Again, being able to stop criminals from reoffending is intuitively appealing, but it isn’t enough to justify a system of criminal punishment. If we should decide that incapacitation justifies criminal punishment, we’re still left with the task of deciding the type of criminal punishment it actually justifies. Which actions are necessary and just forms of incapacitation? Like retribution or proportionality, incapacitation leaves open a very wide array of possible punishments: cutting off the hands of thieves, house arrest, ostracism, banishment, imprisonment, chemical castration, etc. A theory that can’t help us to choose among those options can’t possibly be a complete justification of criminal punishment. Ideally, we don’t want a justification of punishment that allows all or most types of punishment. And again, the fact that some forms of incapacitation are clearly not acceptable isn’t ground enough for a justification based on incapacitation, like the fact that some punishments are clearly not deserved isn’t ground enough for a justification based on retribution.

4. Symbolic confirmation of social rules

Perhaps a more promising justification of criminal punishment is based on the social role of punishment. When we punish criminals for their crimes, we may not intend to give them what they deserve, incapacitate them or deter others; we may instead engage in a bit of theater. Which, by the way, is also one of the reasons for having public trials. The public condemnation of wrong actions is a symbolic confirmation of social rules, and this confirmation has an educational function. It teaches people the values and norms of society, in the hope that they internalize these values and norms through repeated public and symbolic confirmation. Furthermore, the punishment of crimes affirms not just certain values and norms (e.g. don’t steal or murder) but the necessity of peaceful social cooperation and therefore the necessity of society itself.

Like desert, protection, deterrence and incapacitation, these are all fine objectives. However, a justification of criminal punishment based on its symbolic role faces the criticism of instrumentalization, as in the case of deterrence. Especially when the stated objectives – affirmation of norms and society – can be reached through other means.

5. Signaling

And the same is true for the justification of punishment based on the need for signaling. Society, and especially the representatives of society, need to show that they care about victims of crime. However, they don’t have to do so at the expense of criminals. Still less acceptable is the use of punishment as a signal of authority. Punishment can’t be justified when it is merely a manifestation of power by those in charge.

6. Healing and pacification

Punishment can be justified as therapy for the victims of crime, their relatives and friends, and even society as a whole. It’s a fact that punishment gives some satisfaction to victims, and responds to their sense of justice. It can also channel anger and revenge away from the more disturbing forms of those emotions, thereby preventing street justice and vigilantism. However, there’s a disturbing circularity to this justification: because people expect punishment, we should administer it, but because we administer it people continue to expect it. Also, when trying to channel emotions such as anger and revenge into socially acceptable forms we unconsciously promote them, whereas maybe we should try to limit those emotions as much as we can.

7. Rehabilitation

The rehabilitation of the criminal in the sense of his or her moral regeneration is no longer a fashionable justification of punishment. For several reasons: it’s expensive, and it upsets our sense of equal justice (successful rehabilitation can imply a radically shorter sentence). Also, some psychiatric excesses have been successfully ridiculed in movies such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In any case, the point is moot whether or not rehabilitation can be a successful justification of criminal punishment, since society has practically given up on it.


It’s extremely difficult to find an acceptable justification of criminal punishment. Hence, I strongly suspect that this is one of those social practices that seems perfectly normal and acceptable to contemporaries but also one for which we will be universally condemned by future generations.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of solid justifications, people start to look for other reasons explaining the persistence of the practice. There’s talk of the new Jim Crow and criminal punishment being used to maintain oppressive social structures. Maybe it’s time to reread Foucault.

Still, it’s uncontested that society can’t function and people can’t thrive without respect for certain norms, especially the norms included in human rights. Those norms are regularly violated, and a society has the right and the duty to enforce compliance. A rejection of this right and duty means tolerating victimization and rights violations. But if punishment isn’t the right way to enforce compliance, which is? We can’t just accept punishment and to hell with justifications, because punishments do impose costs, both on the criminals being punished and on society as a whole. Imposing costs without justifications isn’t the right thing to do. Also, an unjustified system of punishment will lack legitimacy and will therefore be ineffective, something which will further undermine its legitimacy.

Hence, we’re left with the following choice: look harder for a justification, or find an alternative, non-punitive system of norm enforcement (maybe a system that is able to prevent violations of norms). Only half-jokingly: why not give law-abiding citizens prize money?

More here.


4 thoughts on “Crime and Human Rights (19): Why Do We Impose Criminal Punishment?

  1. Guilt and shame are effective methods of enforcing moral norms when they haven’t been internalized. The justification for punishment is to ensure that those who haven’t internalized the norms will suffer the consequences. It used to be by shunning and shaming; later it was by physical punishment.
    Nothing seems to be particularly effective. But that may be a reflection of the larger problem of the breakdown of social ties, replaced as it is by a marketplace ethic that promotes success and celebrity.

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