Philosophy Punishment
Thom Brooks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0094


The punishment of criminals is a topic of long-standing philosophical interest since the ancient Greeks. This interest has focused on several considerations, including the justification of punishment, who should be permitted to punish, and how we might best set punishments for crimes. This entry focuses on the most important contributions in this field. The focus will be on specific theoretical approaches to punishment including both traditional theories of punishment (retributivism, deterrence, rehabilitation) and more contemporary alternatives (expressivism, restorative justice, hybrid theories, unified theories) with an additional section on capital punishment, perhaps the particular form of punishment that has received the most sustained philosophical attention. These theories of punishment address two important questions: first, who should be permitted to punish and, second, who should be permitted to be punished. These questions then concern the justification of punishment and its distribution. While the majority today often identifies their theories as retributivist, there is a great diversity of theories defended. This article will highlight the leading work for each view.

General Overviews

Several excellent general overviews are available on the philosophy of punishment. Perhaps the best general overview on punishment is Hoskins and Duff 2021. Murtagh 2005 also offers a useful general overview of punishment. Foucault 1977 offers a revealing account of the history and sociology of punishment. An outstanding comprehensive sociological examination of punishment can be found in Garland 1990. Those interested in general introductions to how the philosophy of punishment meets the practice of punishment should see Easton and Piper 2022. For a fascinating look at medieval practices, see Rabin 2020.

  • Easton, Susan, and Christine Piper. Sentencing and Punishment: The Quest for Justice. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780192863294.001.0001

    An outstanding general introduction to the theory and practice of punishment. Highly recommended to new readers on the subject.

  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

    A revealing account of the history and sociology of punishment. This text will be of more interest to advanced readers.

  • Garland, David. Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226922508.001.0001

    A comprehensive sociological examination of punishment aimed at the more advanced scholarly reader.

  • Hoskins, Zachary, and Antony Duff. “Legal Punishment.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2021.

    Offers an excellent overview of legal punishment and related philosophical debates. Readers coming to the study of legal punishment for the first time will greatly benefit from this essay.

  • Murtagh, Kevin. “Punishment.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. New York: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2005.

    A useful general introduction to punishment covering the major areas and debates in the field.

  • Rabin, Andrew. Crime and Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108943109

    A short and accessible survey of how crime and punishment worked in the early medieval world.

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