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Is Bradley a Retributivist?

Brooks, Thom (2011). "Is Bradley a Retributivist?" History of Political Thought XXXII: 83 - 95.

Posted: 15 Apr 2007 Last revised: 15 Jan 2013

Thom Brooks

Durham University

Date Written: April 13, 2007


Perhaps the least controversial area of F. H. Bradley's writings relates to his views on punishment. Commentators universally consider Bradley's theory of punishment to be a retributivist theory of punishment exclusively. Over his career, Bradley's most significant discussions of punishment appear in two publications: his Ethical Studies published in 1876 and in an article entitled 'Some Remarks on Punishment' published in an 1894 issue of the International Journal of Ethics. The vast majority of commentators on Bradley's views on punishment almost exclusively consider Bradley's Ethical Studies, rather than his later article.

This paper challenges the received wisdom. I argue that Bradley does not endorse retributivism; but, rather, he defends the view that punishment is non-retributivist and serves the end of societal maintenance. Bradley defends this view in both his Ethical Studies and later article on punishment, demonstrating the consistency of his position. Thus, his views are not uniquely retributivist amongst British Idealists. Instead, Bradley's theory of punishment is similar to competing British Idealist theories of punishment - such as the theories of T. H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, and James Seth Pringle-Pattison - in finding societal maintenance the highest aim of legal punishment.

In addition to marking a significant break with previous interpretations of Bradley's views, this paper makes clear that Bradley's theory of punishment is firmly in a tradition of Hegelian philosophers writing in the 19th century in its affirmation of societal maintenance as the primary justification of punishment. Thus, the Bradley we find may be unfamiliar, but now far more consistent with the views of fellow British Idealists writing at his time.

Keywords: F. H. Bradley, Bradley, idealism, British idealism, British, criminal law, punishment, penal theory, theories of punishment, retribution, retributivism, retributivist, Hegel, Green, Bosanquet, Seth, Pringle-Pattison, Brooks, 19th Century, legal punishment, imprisonment, philosophy of criminal law

JEL Classification: K0, K10, K14, K19, K30, K39, K40, K42, K49

Suggested Citation

Brooks, Thom, Is Bradley a Retributivist? (April 13, 2007). Brooks, Thom (2011). "Is Bradley a Retributivist?" History of Political Thought XXXII: 83 - 95.. Available at SSRN:

Thom Brooks (Contact Author)

Durham University ( email )

Durham Law School
Durham University
Durham, County Durham DH1 3ET
United Kingdom
+441913344365 (Phone)


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