Liberalism and the General Justifiability of Punishment

TitleLiberalism and the General Justifiability of Punishment
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsHanna, N
JournalPhilosophical Studies

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.