Philosophy Punishment
Thom Brooks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • 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, secondly, 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 entry will highlight the leading work for each view.

General Overviews

There are several excellent general overviews on the philosophy of punishment. Perhaps the best general overview on punishment is Bedau 2010, while the best on legal punishment would be Duff 2008. 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 2005.

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