Philosophical Views on Punishment and Death Penalty


There are different approaches to the philosophical understanding of the issues of punishment and such type of it as the death penalty. The main divergence is caused by the perception of what is good and what is bad. The core principle of virtue ethics is to treat others as they treat you (Hursthouse, 2014). However, when it comes to punishment, even the most dreadful actions may be justified under certain circumstances. There is no single approach to punishment, but the supporters and opponents of various punishment theories agree on one thing. While assessing the punishment methods, it is necessary to take into consideration not only the action itself, but the motives which led the person to commit a crime, the person’s characteristic features, and the moral principles.

Theories of Punishment and Approaches to Their Treatment

The three main theories of punishment are retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation (Lafollette, 2014). Deterrence and rehabilitation theories are forward-looking while the theory of retribution is backward-looking. The primary objective of the deterrence approach is to punish someone to avert the crime in the future. The approach of rehabilitation is also concerned with the future, but its goal is to help the criminals accommodate to society and get ready to be productive citizens again. The theory of retribution is the one concerned with the past: it aims to punish people for their illegal actions. This theory is unlikely to produce a deterrent effect, and even if it does, it is sooner an exception than a rule (Lafollette, 2014). The theories of punishment are similar to ethical theories of consequentialism and deontology. Deontological approaches are backward-looking like retribution theory, and consequential approaches are close to deterrence and rehabilitation due to their common forward-looking direction (Lafollette, 2014). Because of the contradictory understanding of which elements of the action are morally proper, philosophers have different opinions on punishment approaches. Some of them support the backward-looking way of retribution while others advocate rehabilitation and deterrence.

Rachels (2014) justifies the importance of punishment for those who have committed something wrong. He explains his retribution view by asserting that punishment is more than just pure revenge. The scholar remarks that punishment is a constituent of a complex moral network which can be reinforced by many reasons. Rachels emphasizes that people deserve to be dealt with in the same way as they treat others (Rachels, 2014). This approach, according to the author, does not only pertain to punishment but is the moral basis for many spheres of our lives. Rachels believes that people earn the attitude of others by their past deeds. Apart from one’s actions, the desert may depend on one’s natural gifts or achievements. However, this idea has lost its popularity over time because people’s natural talents are inborn, and people do not pay any effort to get them.

Therefore, they do not deserve their endowments but simply own them (Rachels, 2014). Explaining moral desert, Rachels (2014) considers it a virtue of one’s behavior towards other people rather than a virtue of one’s accomplishments. The scholar explains that people select a way of treating others, and their desert rests on that decision. Rachels identifies three proofs for dealing with people according to their deserts. The first one is that admitting deserts empowers people to decide their fate. The second cause is associated with the egalitarian concept about the fair distribution of social advantages and difficulties. The third reason is that morality depends on reciprocity (Rachels, 2014). Rachels applies his principle of the desert to criminal punishment. He argues that those who act illegally should be punished for their actions, and the punishment is validated merely by people’s criminal activity.

The retributive approach justifies punishment not only by people’s actions but also by their state of mind at the time of acting. Therefore, some scholars argue that what people do often depends on the circumstances. Doris (2014) remarks that the problem with the criminalists’ treatment of people’s ill actions is that they are guided by the perception of the actions’ features instead of considering the character evaluation. Thus, while Doris supports Rachels’ retribution approach, he considers it essential to assess whether a wrongdoer has an excuse for his/her action (Doris, 2014). Doris believes that when there is a legit explanation of a crime, punishment should not be applied. However, the author remarks that if the person’s character and not the actions are considered the cause of wrongdoing, then the courts should apply punishment for character defects, which they do not do (Doris, 2014). Doris compares the theory of character to the theory of choice. He notes that a person always has a choice of whether to commit a crime. Doris argues that some decisions can be justified while others cannot. For instance, if a person does crime to avoid humiliation, his/her choice cannot be warranted (Doris, 2014). However, if a person does something illegal because of the threat of torture, such action should be justified because the choice was made in the person’s defense.

While the need for punishment in at least one of its dimensions is justified by most people, some scholars draw attention to the deficiencies in the punishment system. For instance, Wright, Cullen, and Beaver (2014) note the decline in progressive belief in the success of rehabilitation. Wright et al. (2014) remark that under the pretense of rehabilitation actions, the state could warrant any kind of disciplinary actions as rehabilitative. Thus, the lack of success of this punishment theory led to a punishment experiment in the US (Wright et al., 2014). This experiment involved the emergence of many laws in different states with new modifications of punishment methods. In an attempt to justify punishment, Wright et al. (2014) suggest four reasons: incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and fair desert. Instead of choosing one method over others, Wright et al. (2014) emphasize that all of these disciplinary models are interconnected, and an application of just one of them is not possible.

As we can see, all authors agree to some extent about the core moral principles, but each approach develops a different assessment of the need for punishment and its methods. Such diversity takes place because moral principles are not the only determinants of one’s attitude towards punishment. Rather, how one defines and operates these principles formulates one’s understanding of the theories of punishment.

Death Penalty

In modern ethical discussions, rights occupy a crucial place. People advocate or oppose the right to euthanasia or abortion, argue about political and animal rights, and discuss the rights of sexual minorities (Reinbolt, 2014). In the abundance of rights and rules governing our lives, a right to live occupies the central place. The theory of retribution regards the death penalty or capital punishment as one of the ways of compensating for a crime committed by a person. The issue of capital punishment has always been among the most actively discussed both by legislators and ethics theorists. While some consider the death penalty a fair punishment for the most serious crimes, others defend people’s right to life, even if these people have deprived someone else of this right.

Pojman (2014) agrees with the opinion of Rachels (2014) on desert and retribution. Therefore, the retributivist theory not only allows and supports the death penalty but demands it on the basis that the person who committed a serious crime such as a murder deserves to be deprived of his/her life. Pojman (2014) remarks an objection to retribution which lies in the possibility of justification of a criminal by the state. However, he says that he disagrees with this objection. The author emphasizes that the only way of fair treatment of people is to give them by their deserts. Thus, when a person took away a life, his/her life should be taken away as well (Pojman, 2014). Pojman discusses three objections to the death penalty and responds to these objections. The first one is that capital punishment is not morally acceptable. The second argument is that due to the errors in the justice system, innocent people may suffer. The third objection is that the death penalty is frequently biased on the part of minorities (Pojman, 2014). The author justifies all of these objections by stating that capital punishment is not unjust and it is not a type of revenge. Therefore, he asserts the need for this kind of penalty.

Unlike Pojman, Reiman (2014) expresses his disagreement with the postulates of the death penalty and advocates the need for other punishment methods for the criminals. Reiman states that instead of the death penalty, other methods could be employed to punish the criminals. Also, he argues that this kind of punishment increases people’s tendency towards cruelty (Reiman, 2014). In defense of his arguments, Reiman suggests the objections close to those discussed by Pojman: the death penalty is also a murder, some people are convicted by mistake, and this punishment is not so successful in deterring future crimes (Pojman, 2014). The author concludes that until the death penalty proves that it is the best deterrent to murder, it is not justified.

In his empirical evaluation of the Connecticut capital punishment system, Donohue (2014) analyses 205 death-eligible cases between 1973 and 2007. Donohue supports Reiman’s (2014) viewpoint connected with the bias in the death penalty system. According to his investigation, there is a huge disparity between the probability of a death sentence for white people and minority representatives. When a white is killed by a white, the prospect of capital punishment is 0.57 percent, whereas if a minority kills a white, he/she encounters a 91.2 percent probability (Donohue, 2014, p. 637). Donohue’s (2014) research results show that 141 out of 205 death-eligible cases were charged with the death penalty. 49 of these 141 convicted were permitted to plead guilty to a non-death sentence. Out of the rest 92, 26 were vindicated, and 66 were convicted of capital punishment (Donohue, 2014, p. 641).

To collect the most accurate details about the 205 cases, Donohue (2014) organized three teams of researchers who were responsible for evaluating the precision of the variables and rating the atrociousness of each case. Having obtained exhaustive data about the egregiousness of the cases, Donohue (2014) was able to draw three significant deductions. First of all, he concludes that there are considerable racial, geographical, and gender divergences in the treatment of the murderers. Secondly, a comprehensive evaluation of the atrociousness of each death-eligible case allows managing all acknowledged elements of crime, which could impact sentencing resolutions. Thirdly, obtaining an atrocious measure provides the necessary empirical content which proves that capital punishment should be eliminated only to the most terrible offenses (Donohue, 2014). Donohue’s (2014) empirical analysis shows the inconsistencies in the death penalty system. The author suggests to reconsider the conviction measures and make the punishment system less prejudiced.


Methods of punishment have always provoked a lot of discussion and disagreement. Two theories (deterrence and rehabilitation) are concentrated on such punishment approaches which would allow people who have committed a crime to repent and try to return to normal life. The third theory (retribution) demands severe measures against criminals. The highest of such measures is the death penalty. Its advocates are guided by ethical theories of the desert and say that those who take away lives have no right to live. Opponents of capital punishment argue that it is also murder by its nature, and it cannot teach others anything good. Whether they support the forward-looking or backward-looking punishment approach, the scholars agree that the choice of punishment demands thorough consideration on the part of philosophy, ethics, and legislation. Only a diversified approach makes it possible to find justification for a particular punishment theory.


Donohue, J. J. (2014). An empirical evaluation of the Connecticut death penalty system since 1973: Are there unlawful racial, gender, and geographic disparities? Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 11(4), 637-696.

Doris, J. M. (2014). Out of character: On the psychology of excuses in the criminal law. In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 474-483). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Hursthouse, R. (2014). Virtue theory. In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 60-70). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Lafollette, H. (2014). Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 49-59). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Pojman, L. P. (2014). In defense of death penalty. In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 494-502). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Rachels, J. (2014). Punishment and desert. In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 466-473). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Reiman, J. (2014). Against the death penalty. In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 503-509). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Reinbolt, G. W. (2014). Rights. In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 49-59). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Wright, J. P., Cullen, F. T., & Beaver, K. M. (2014). Does punishment work? In H. Lafollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice: An anthology (4th ed.) (pp. 484-493). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.