Philosophical Studies

, Volume 145, Issue 3, pp 325-349

First online:

Liberalism and the general justifiability of punishment

  • Nathan HannaAffiliated withPhilosophy Department, Syracuse University Email author 

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I argue that contemporary liberal theory cannot give a general justification for the institution or practice of punishment, i.e., a justification that would hold across a broad range of reasonably realistic conditions. I examine the general justifications offered by three prominent contemporary liberal theorists and show how their justifications fail in light of the possibility of an alternative to punishment. I argue that, because of their common commitments regarding the nature of justification, these theorists have decisive reasons to reject punishment in favor of a non-punitive alternative. I demonstrate the possibility of this alternative by means of a careful examination of the nature of punishment, isolating one essential characteristic—the aim to impose suffering—and showing how this characteristic need not guide enforcement. There is logical space for a forceful and coercive, yet non-punitive method of enforcement. This fact poses difficulties for many classical and contemporary justifications of punishment, but it poses particularly crippling problems for general liberal justifications.


Punishment Justification Liberalism Liberal theory Justice Criminal justice Crime Abolitionism Law Legal theory Restorative justice Enforcement