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Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment Essay

The aim of the philosophy of punishment is to understand the reason behind administration of punishment and the procedure used in determining the suitable punishment. Punishment refers to authoritative deprivation of people’s freedoms and rights or inflicting pain to an individual or group of people because of engaging in activities against the laws of the society or some group of people.

Punishments are administered informally within the society for instance within a family set up or formally through the system of justice in the country. The main aim of punishing wrong doers is to correct them so that they do not go back to the same crime. Punishments are also administered to prevent the victim from influencing other innocent citizens and shy off some who may be intending to commit the same crime (Corlett, 2006).

Theories of punishment

Governments apply several theories to support the use of punishment so that the society maintains law and order. A society without punishment would be disorderly because the rate of crimes will be very high. Crimes like rape, theft, kidnapping, robbery, murder among others would be on increase.

This would end the society into a dangerous state. Punishments are used as control measures to people’s behaviors. Involvement in crimes is minimized by punishments because people are aware of the strict measures to be taken against them. Utilitarian and retributivist are the two major theories used in support of punishments (Corlett, 2006).

Utilitarian theory of punishment

This theory is based on the assumption that offenders are punished to prevent and discourage them from engaging in crimes in future. According to this theory, maximization of laws contributes to society’s happiness. Law enforcement minimizes crimes and punishments and therefore people lead happy and comfortable lives. The proponents of the theory agree that a society free of crimes does not exist but try as much as possible to punish offenders to deter them from committing crimes in future (Murphy, 2007).

Murphy (2007) argues that utilitarian theory is naturally consequential. This means that the effects of punishment are felt by individual offenders as well as the larger society. They therefore believe that the benefits of the punishments should outweigh the disadvantages it has to both parties.

The theory requires that laws are specifically designed to prevent individual criminals from future destructive activities as well as effects on other members in the society. There are two basic levels of deterrence, general and specific levels of deterrence. General deterrence means that punishment administered to a criminal prevents other people from committing crimes.

The punishment is meant to help others understand that criminal behavior is punishable and therefore the person serves as an example to other people. Specific or individual deterrence means that the punishment is meant to prevent its bearer from committing further crimes. One way of punishing offenders is confining them in a jail where they are under exposure of unfavorable conditions. The experiences in jail discourage them from repeating the crime.

Another argument put forward by utilitarians is that punishment changes the moral values of the offender. Punishments make wrong doers realize their mistakes and change for the better so that similar mistakes are not repeated again. In addition, they believe that punishment involves isolation of the offender from the rest of the society members.

Society members are now secure because the person cannot cause any more harm to them. For instance when criminals are confined in jails, their movements is closely monitored within the institution. They also believe that punishments should both be administered to offenders and innocent people if the society is to benefit from the act (Murphy, 2007).

According to Murphy (2007), rehabilitation measures are useful methods of instilling punishment to offenders. Offenders are taken to rehabilitation centers under the control of law where necessary steps are taken to help them out of criminal activities.

Treatments of pain like chronic violent behavior and mental disorders are some of the applicable rehabilitation measures taken on criminals. Educational programs are also offered in rehabilitation centers which equip them with knowledge and skills in various courses. This enables them to earn a living.

Retributivist theory of punishment

The theory puts its major emphasis on the crime.Its proponents believe that criminals deserve punishments because they committed certain crimes. The reason for being punished is because they deserve it.

People should be responsible for their deeds and actions and therefore should bear the consequences of such actions. Proponents argue the guilty and not innocent should be subjected to punishment. The theory is based on violation of laws (transgression) as the reason for administering punishment (Murphy, 2007).

Retributivist theorists argue that people have free will and can make rational decisions. The thinking capacity of normal human beings is high and it makes it possible for people to differentiate between the right and wrong.

They should make sound decisions before acting. If an act affects other people negatively, it should be avoided. People with mental disorders like madness should not be subjected to punishments because they may not be aware of their actions (Murphy, 2007).

According to this theory, punishment is a form of revenge. Punishment is meant to let offenders suffer like they caused suffering to other people. The theory is based on the same principle applied in the Christian Bible during the Old Testament. The bible encourages revenge by using phrases such as “tooth for tooth”, “fracture for fracture” and “eye for eye”.

The bible in the Old Testament encourages peoples to cause as much pain as they caused them. In addition, the theorists argue that individual and societies legitimate rights are protected in effect with the punishment.

Through the punishment, the offender pays the debt to the society after which the offender joins the community back without any guilty. It’s a kind of respect to the offender because other society members do not discriminate against them. According to this theory, the main determinant of the punishment is the level of crime. Judging how much one is to be punished is the problem (Murphy, 2007).

Merits of Utilitarian Theory

Murphy (2007) argues that utilitarian theory of punishment has several advantages. For example, it helps in changing the morals of the person. Immoral people change to responsible citizens after they have been subjected to punishment. Offenders realize that what they are doing is not accepted by the society and adopt acceptable values.

The standard in which societies maintain law and order is high because the effects of punishment will be felt by the whole society. Society members try as much as possible to avoid engaging in crimes which may lead to them being punished. In many cases, offenders are triggered by a particular issue to engage in crimes like theft.

Rehabilitation centers are of great help to such people because they come out of the centers with knowledge and skills which they can depend on to earning a living. Incarceration acts as a way of preventing further crimes in the society by isolating criminals. Sufferings caused by criminals are reduced too minimum. Harsh and severe punishments in jail help in molding criminals into useful citizens.

Merits of retributivist theory

The theory discourages people from engaging in crimes because they will be held accountable for their actions. Offenders receive back what they do to other people. The punishment that an individual receives is equivalent to the crime committed. Application of the theory enhances justices because there is no way in which all crimes will be judged equally.

There are those crimes which cause severe and long lasting suffering to the victim like rape. Individuals convicted with such crimes should receive a different judging from that of another person who stole minor items if justice is to be maintained. The theory encourages fair judgment.

Unlike Utilitarian, the theory does not allow innocent people to suffer for actions they did not participate in or things may not be aware of. If the laws of a society allow innocent people to suffer on the basis that the results will be overall gain to the society, this is fair (Yadav, 1993)

Yadav (1993) states that mentally unfit persons should not be subjected to punishments. Such people commit crimes out of their knowledge and should not be held responsible for them. In some cases, they also engage in activities which endanger their own lives. Instead of punishing them, they should be taken to rehabilitation centers where necessary treatments are administered.

Finally, proponents of this theory believe that people are punished because they went against the laid down instructions. After, the punishment, the offender is welcomed back to the society.

Utilitarian versus Retributivist

It is difficult to determine which of the two theories is superior because they are all based on strong arguments. The aim of the utilitarian theory is to prevent the offender from committing crimes in future while retributivists strongly believe that offenders must pay back to the community their bad deeds. These are all valuable arguments. It is difficult for societies to perfectly follow the theories but they act as general guidelines to them (Yadav, 1993).

According to me, utilitarian theory of punishment is superior to retributivist theory. This is because some of its arguments are subject to criticism. For instance, it is difficult to estimate appropriate punishments for crimes. How will a judge determine the punishment for rape and murder cases which are equally serious crimes? Secondly, there is a likelihood of offenders getting used to punishments because they are sure they will be absorbed back to the society comfortably after completing their punishment.

Some criminals may change it into habit. Some people may pretend to be mentally unfit in order to evade the punishment. Out of ignorance, some people may get involved in crimes. Finally, making criminals suffer like they did to other people is not solution to the problem. They will continue engaging in crimes (Zaibert, 2006).

Effectiveness of the Approaches

Both approaches are not effective because the kinds of punishments imposed on criminals in the modern world do not effectively rehabilitate criminals. For instance, criminals who are fined do not feel the pinch of what they do to other people. Such forms prevent crime for some period of time.

If criminals are to change, they should be exposed to financial, emotional and physical suffering. Although it is difficult for a society free of crime to exist, societies should have laid down instruction to help them in maintaining law and order (Zaibert, 2006).


Corlett, A. (2006). Responsibility and punishment. New York, NY: Springer.

Murphy, C. (2007). Philosophy of law: the fundamentals. New York, NY: Blackwell Pub.

Yadav, D. (1993). Law of crime and self-defence. New York, NY: Mittal Publications.

Zaibert, L. (2006). Punishment and retribution. London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

This Essay on Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment was written and submitted by user Reese Nolan to help you with your own studies. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Reese Nolan studied at the University of Florida, USA, with average GPA 3.77 out of 4.0.

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Nolan, Reese. "Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment." IvyPanda, 13 Jan. 2020,

1. Reese Nolan. "Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment." IvyPanda (blog), January 13, 2020.


Nolan, Reese. "Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment." IvyPanda (blog), January 13, 2020.


Nolan, Reese. 2020. "Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment." IvyPanda (blog), January 13, 2020.


Nolan, R. (2020) 'Utilitarian and Retributivist theories of punishment'. IvyPanda, 13 January.

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