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August 21, 2013

Any burning questions about general punishment theory (or desires to dig deeper)?

Though we will keep talking about general punishment theories this week and next, I felt pretty good that everyone (or at least everyone who spoke up in class) is feeling okay about the basic features, and also the basic pros and cons, of classic utilitarian and retributive theories of punishment.  But if folks have burning questions and/or worries about these important basics, feel free to use the comments to raise them.

Relatedly, if any philosopher-type folks want to read more about so-called "mixed" or "hybrid" theories that try to figure out ways to embrace the "best" parts of both classic utilitarian and retributive theories of punishment, here are links to two notable papers that give it a shot:

I highly encourage students NOT to read these linked papers unless and until they have done evrything else they want/need to do first (for classes and for themselves).  But I thought it would be useful to showcase that smart professors have spent a lot of time writing lots of pages with lots of words to explain how they think they have figured all this out.  And I could link to, literally, hundreds of additional examples.

August 21, 2013 in Class reflections | Permalink


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I'm curious about thoughts regarding the retribution critique of utilitarianism/consequentialism as treating people under the thumb of governmental "condemnation and harm" as somehow dehumanizing, or "denying the human dignity of offenders by treating them as determined creatures whose behavior could not be accounted for by their own choices to break the law" (Braithewaite and Pettit 33). Maybe this is deep in the philosophic weeds, but shouldn't the humanity of those who live under the law be the basis for a theory of punishment? A utilitarian might argue they achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of humans, but that seems to me to distinctly neglect the individual nature of each human being. Thoughts?

Posted by: Elliot Gaiser | Aug 21, 2013 5:03:44 PM

An interesting "deep thought," Elliot, though I suspect utilitarians would say respect individual humans by (in their eyes, righteously)counting the suffering of the individual from a punishment as a harm rather than as a good thing. Also, I wonder which ways this "humanity" concerns might take retributivists (or you) when pushed to consider types of punishment. Might one assert that all forms of imprisonment and the death penalty are dehumanizing because we are treating people like wild animals by keeping them in cages or exterminating them? Might are deep commitment to humanity allow only punishments like fines and community service because they are the only kinds that involve inherently "human" institutions?

I think these ideas usefully move us toward some educative and/or expressive theories of punishment, which some claim are distinct from either utilitarian and retributivist punishment theories (and which other claims are unsatisfying hybrid theories).

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 23, 2013 10:12:59 AM

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