What's Wrong With Harmless Theories of Punishment

36 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2008

See all articles by Kenworthey Bilz

Kenworthey Bilz

University of Illinois College of Law

John M. Darley

Princeton University


Consequentialists believe punishment can only be justified to the extent that it serves a particular goal - generally of reducing wrongdoing. Retributivists believe that punishment serves as an end (and a good) in itself, by 'answering' wrongdoing and giving a voice to society's norms and moral edicts. This Article aims to demonstrate, however, that dividing up the world of punishment theory in this way is not especially useful. By laying out the underlying assumptions of these theories (something infrequently done), we reveal not only several surprising and fundamental similarities, but we also make clear that the most important differences between the two theories rest on particular understandings of what the harms of crime actually are, and whether given punishments address them. Once people specify which harms are in dispute in a particular policy debate, speaking in terms of consequentialist and retributivist theories adds little, if anything, to the discussion. In fact, it tends to obscure the real issues in contest, and makes it more difficult to see which punishment policies will best redress the harms of crime. To improve both clarity of the discussion and the effectiveness of ultimate solutions, we argue that punishment policy debates should bypass the punishment philosophy stage altogether, and focus directly on contested views about harms. Using philosophical and empirical findings, we describe what this sort of debate would look like both in the abstract and through concrete examples.

Keywords: crime, punishment, psychology, philosophy

Suggested Citation

Bilz, Kenworthey and Darley, John M., What's Wrong With Harmless Theories of Punishment. Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 79. p. 1215, 2004, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1023085

Kenworthey Bilz (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

John M. Darley

Princeton University ( email )

1-N-17 Green Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States
609-258-3000 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics