Law and Philosophy

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 45–75 | Cite as

Punishment as Moral Fortification

  • Jeffrey W. HowardEmail author
Open Access


The proposal that the criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation – rather than retribution, deterrence, or expressive denunciation – is among the least popular ideas in legal philosophy. Foremost among rehabilitation’s alleged weaknesses is that it views criminals as blameless patients to be treated, rather than culpable moral agents to be held accountable. This article offers a new interpretation of the rehabilitative approach that is immune to this objection and that furnishes the moral foundation that this approach has lacked. The view rests on the principle that moral agents owe it to one another to maintain the dependability of their moral capacities. Agents who culpably commit criminal wrongs, however, betray an unacceptable degree of moral unreliability. Punishment, on this theory, consists in the enforcement of the duties that offenders have to reduce their own likelihood of recidivism.



I am grateful to Jonathan Quong and Leslie Green, who examined the DPhil from which this article was developed, offering many crucial suggestions to the argument. I am also grateful to my supervisors, Jeremy Waldron and David Miller, for extensive feedback and support. Thanks also to Paul Bou-Habib, Neal Carrier, Ian Carroll, Matthew Clayton, Bob Goodin, Malte Ibsen, Emily McTernan, Avia Pasternak, Adam Slavny, Victor Tadros, Albert Weale, Caleb Yong, and two anonymous reviewers, all of whom provided great assistance through either discussion or written comments. And thanks to insightful audiences at the UCL Political Theory Seminar, the Warwick CELPA Seminar, the Nuffield Political Theory Workshop, the Essex Political Theory Seminar, and the Wits Justice Project in Johannesburg.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science,University College LondonLondonUK

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