Responsibility and punishment

John S. Callender

in Free will and responsibility

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780199545551
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754616 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Responsibility and punishment

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Hart (1968, 1) opened his account of legal punishment with the statement, ‘Any morally tolerable account of this institution must exhibit it as a compromise between distinct and partly conflicting principles.’ There is no single rationale or theory of punishment that is without problems or would not result in unacceptable outcomes if applied to every offender and every offense. The impulse to punish has probably been around as long as humans have lived with each other in social groups. It is primarily motivated by feelings of anger and hurt, and emotions such as these underpin the retributive approach to punishment. However, the justification of punishment as intrinsically appropriate rests on too many insupportable assumptions about the nature of free will and must be considered untenable.

The system of legal punishment should have the principal aim of reducing the burdens and suffering caused by crime. This should involve something more than achieving social aims such as reduction in crime. Punishment should also aim to repair the damage caused to victims and communities by criminal acts and to promote positive changes in offenders. This may be best achieved by the kinds of restorative measures described above. The results of research on outcomes are promising and hold out the hope of bringing about some improvement in a social problem that has proved to be so intractable.

The fact that punishment of offenders in general rests on a multiplicity of justifications is of relevance when we come to consider how we should respond to offenders who suffer from psychiatric conditions such as personality disorders, brain damage, and posttraumatic stress disorders. Such conditions do not usually lead to legal excuse or exoneration but highlight the need for a more sophisticated approach to the punishment of crime.

Chapter.  8659 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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