Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 523–544 | Cite as

Are ‘Optimistic’ Theories of Criminal Justice Psychologically Feasible? The Probative Case of Civic Republicanism

  • Victoria McGeerEmail author
  • Friederike Funk
Original Paper


‘Optimistic’ normative theories of criminal justice aim to justify criminal sanction in terms of its reprobative/rehabilitative value rather than its punitive nature as such. But do such theories accord with ordinary intuitions about what constitutes a ‘just’ response to wrongdoing? Recent empirical work on the psychology of punishers suggests that human beings have a ‘brutely retributive’ moral psychology, making them unlikely to endorse normative theories that sacrifice retribution for the sake of reprobation or rehabilitation; it would mean, for example, that we cannot expect people to support such optimistic theories democratically, calling their feasibility into question. Taking the civic republican theory as an exemplar of optimistic theories, we argue that it does not fail this feasibility test. We review recent empirical research, including studies of our own, to support the claim that, far from being brute retributivists, human beings are generally satisfied only with punishment that delivers something other than mere retribution. And we show that this coheres very closely with the goals and policies that civic republicanism would support, as it may be expected to cohere also with other optimistic proposals.


Retribution Punishment Offender transformation Justice-related satisfaction Civic republicanism Moral psychology 



An earlier version of this paper was presented at a workshop on Republican theories of Criminal Law at Cordoza Law School in September 2014. The authors are grateful for helpful feedback from our commentator, Adam Kolber and from other workshop participants. We also thank John Braithwaite, Nicola Lacey, and Philip Pettit for more extensive comments on earlier drafts; and we are grateful to John Darley for initiating our interdisciplinary collaboration on punishment and for helpful feedback in its early stages. Victoria McGeer’s work was supported by the Australian Research Council (Grant Number DP140102468). Friederike Funk’s work was supported by a Laurance S. Rockefeller Graduate Prize Fellowship (University Center for Human Values, Princeton University) and a Fellowship of Woodrow Wilson Scholars (Princeton University).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University Center for Human ValuesPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  2. 2.Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.Psychology DepartmentPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  4. 4.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of CologneCologneGermany

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