Michael Lessnoff: Two Justifications of Punishment

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Module 5: What ends can we try to achieve by punishing those responsible for criminalized behavior?

In Lessnoff’s article on Two Justifications of Punishment, he outlines two seemingly opposing answers to the question “what justifies punishment”: the retributive theory and the utilitarian theory. Lessnoff describes the retributive theory as “the view that what justifies the suffering inflicted by punishment is the moral culpability of the behavior that is punished,” while the utilitarian view asserts that it is by the “beneficial consequences [of punishment] that punishment is justified” (141). The beneficial consequences of punishment are the reduction of crime by either fear or moral education (Lessnoff 141). These two views, the retributive and the utilitarian, have both moral and logical components to it that need to be talked about before diving deeper into the subject of the justifications of punishment. The retributive theory specifically has to do with moral claims of justice and punishing wrongdoing while the utilitarian theory can be trapped in moral controversies by hypothetical scenarios. In other words, the utilitarian approach to punishment is not, unlike the retributive approach, bound by moral factors by definition and therefore, based on the assumptions (or realities) in place, can be forced to assume immoral or unjust positions on punishment. For example, Lessnoff explains how utilitarianism might be controversial: if there was a scenario where criminalizing an innocent man would incite fear or serve as a moral lesson for others — and therefore reduce the occurrence of crime — this would be justified under the utilitarian theory.

Lessnoff claims that, instead of being opposed views, the retributive view and the utilitarian view complement each other, however, the utilitarian view is essential to the purposes of punishment. Professor Hart makes the distinction between the General Justifying Aim of punishment and the Principles of its Distribution: “for a thoroughgoing retributionist, the General Justifying Aim of punishment is to ensure that wrongdoers suffer as they deserve; for a utilitarian, it is to diminish the amount of wrongdoing” (143). Lessnoff goes on to explain how Hart’s main point is that the General Justifying Aim does not exclude all other values/morals/norms, and, since punishment is something that directly or indirectly pertains to people, those people “are obviously relevant to its distribution” (143).

Lessnoff explains that there are two types of justifications of punishment: the teleological and the entitling. The teleological has to do with the general purpose of punishment, namely, to reduce the occurrence of crime. While the entitling has to do with a more retributive aspect of punishment, namely, that the person who committed the wrongful act is deserving of punishment. In other words, the utilitarian view and the retributive view do not necessarily have to be opposed to one another and we can achieve more than one end in punishing those deserving of it.

Lessnoff, M. (1971). Two Justifications of Punishment. The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), 21(83), 141–148. doi:10.2307/2218336.

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