, Volume 145, Issue 3, pp 325-349
Date: 10 May 2008

Liberalism and the general justifiability of punishment

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Abstract

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.