The Journal of Ethics

, 13:73 | Cite as

Punishment Theory’s Golden Half Century: A Survey of Developments from (about) 1957 to 2007

  • Michael Davis


This paper describes developments in punishment theory since the middle of the twentieth century. After the mid–1960s, what Stanley I. Benn called “preventive theories of punishment”—whether strictly utilitarian or more loosely consequentialist like his—entered a long and steep decline, beginning with the virtual disappearance of reform theory in the 1970s. Crowding out preventive theories were various alternatives generally (but, as I shall argue, misleadingly) categorized as “retributive”. These alternatives include both old theories (such as the education theory) resurrected after many decades in philosophy’s graveyard and some new ones (such as the fairness theory). Only in the last decade or so have new vares o “consequentialism” appeared to dilute a debate among philosophers that had become almost entirely about “retributivism”. I shall describe this trend in more detail. The description will be less an update of my 1990 survey than a rethinking of it. The conclusion I draw from this rethinking is that we need to drop the utilitarian–retributivist (and nonconsequentialist–nonconsequentialist) distinction in favor of one sorting punishment theories according to whether they rely in part on empirical considerations (externalist theories) or instead rely (almost) entirely on conceptual relations (internalist theories).


Retributive Utilitarian Consequentialist Nonconsequentialist Conceptual Empirical Kant 



An early version of this paper was presented to the Humanities Colloquium, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, on February 8, 2008. I should like to thanks those present—as well as Angelo Corlett, Brian Ellis, Steve Kershnar, and Don Scheid—for their helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyIllinois Institute of TechnologyChicagoUSA

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