Desert Part 3: The Purpose of Punishment

November 30, 2008

Last time I observed that punishments are, by definition, given because they are deserved. This is the “retributive” view of punishment (although as mentioned earlier, this is the more traditional concept of “retribution” as requital rather than revenge or retaliation). Plamentz (1967), while not defining punishment to be retributive, suggests that it is only in societies which have professional judges and teachers where punishment would be seen as a means to an end, and that in “primitive” societies punishment would simply be seen as proper and fitting.

I do not mean to suggest that punishment serves no purpose beyond that of desert. I have already mentioned that it is a vital part of the concept of morality, or the concept of rules, that poor conduct should be punished. My point is that without the notion of desert, we are left with a deeply flawed concept of punishment. Lewis (1953) described punishment without desert as the “Humanitarian Theory Of Punishment”. Regarding its application to criminal justice he wrote:

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic … But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice.

Lewis argued that this theory, despite appearing merciful, would deprive criminals of their rights as human beings. The enlightened, non-retributive action, taken in response to crime would be as compulsory as retributive punishment, but not subject to the same restraints. While I hesitate to raise it to the level of human rights, I would suggest that in the education context the Humanitarian theory of punishment allows similar injustices.

Deterrence is the most commonplace, pragmatic justification for punishment. Docking (1987) observes that “the view of most teachers is that some punishment is necessary for deterrent purposes” but identifies the popularity of Bentham’s (1789) view: “But all punishment is a mischief: all punishment is in itself evil … It ought only be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil”. A purely deterrent based system of punishment can be seen as (that most incoherent of concepts) a “necessary evil”. However, deterrents can act against justice in several ways. It is not necessary to punish the guilty to deter. Punishment of those who are thought to be guilty (“the usual suspects”) or punishment of wider groups of people than simply the guilty may also deter. Whole class punishments, in which every student in a class is punished regardless of guilt, is often a deterrent even though such punishment of the innocent is utterly unjust. If punishment was truly only about deterrence then collective punishment and victimisation of undesirable elements would be the order of the day. Similarly, there would be no reason to show restraint in punishment. If students were not deterred by a particular punishment, then there would be no reason not to increase its severity, no punishment could be unfairly harsh if there was no concept of desert to suggest the punishment needed to fit the crime. Punishment as deterrent would be more brutal and less discriminating than punishment as retribution. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily make it wrong but it does give a lie to those who suggest retributive punishment is cruel or unfair when compared with punishments given only as a deterrent.

The other proposed purpose of punishment is that of “rehabilitation”. The claim is that punishments can, in some way, reform the character of the punished. There is some truth to the suggestion that punishment can teach a lesson. Wilson (1971) suggests that punishment is educative because it consists in part of “seeing the point or rightness of the rules” as “it is because the rules are right that it hurts to break them”. Plamentz (1967) identifies punishment of young and “innocent” children as intending to “train them to `feel’ as they ought”. Peters (1966) adds the possibility that a punishment might serve as a “sharp shock” which would bring an offending student “to their senses”, breaking them out of a fantasy and causing them to contemplate what behaviour is or is not socially acceptable. Others, such as Piaget (1932), suggest specific ways of punishing that might reform. However, there are clear limits (noted by most of those named above) to the extent to which such an effect might take place. It is also less than clear that punishment is educative when it is intended to be purely educative. It seems to me more plausible that it is when a punishment consists of a clear judgement of moral fault and desert that it provides most to think about and learn from.

More importantly, without desert, there is once again no requirement that the punishment fits the crime. At the moment we see inappropriately lenient punishments (eg. a verbal warning, a day off school) that are intended to “reform”. However, particularly in light of the fact that such punishments never do reform, it would be equally justified to use inappropriately harsh punishments. If a child is being punished in order to be reformed then there is no point at which they have “done their time” and can cease being punished. The only justified punishment, even for a minor misdemeanour such as dropping litter, is one that continues until it is clear that they will never reoffend. Again, a supposedly humanitarian doctrine could be used to justify the most severe punishments.

It might seem odd that I am arguing against the principles of deterrent and reform on the grounds that it would lead to punishments that are too harsh, when normally I am complaining that punishments are not harsh enough. Actually, this all takes us back to the issue of human nature. If human beings were rarely inclined to do wrong then perhaps small deterrents would deter all wrongdoing and small penalties, of the right kind, could reform the worst offenders. The lenient punishments we currently see might be compatible with deterrent and rehabilitation if the desire to do wrong was rare and weak. The fact is that human beings are prone to doing wrong. Deterrents would have to be severe and rehabilitation extensive to prevent misbehaviour completely and there is no reason why the advocates of the Humanitarian theory of punishment should be aiming for anything less than this. The retributive approach to punishment seeks justice, it hasn’t failed if some offences are still committed. By contrast, if an offence continues to occur it hasn’t been deterred, and the offenders haven’t been rehabilitated and so, according to the Humanitarian theory of punishment there is no reason to cease punishing until reoffending becomes unthinkable. Of course, what happens in practice is that those who reject desert also fail to acknowledge what human nature is like. Then and only then, when what children are like and what can be done about it are both being ignored, do we arrive at the situation our schools are now in: a state of complete and utter denial.


Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Collins, 1957, first published 1789

Docking, J.W. Control and discipline In Schools: Perspectives and approaches,Second Edition, Harper and Row Ltd, 1987

Lewis, C.S. The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, Res Judicatae 6, 1953

Plamentz, J. Responsibility, Blame and Punishment, in Laslet, P. and Runciman, W.C. (eds) Philosophy, Politics and Society: Third Series 1967

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966

Piaget, Jean The Moral Judgement Of The Child, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline in Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971


  1. Brilliant. One of the best ever, OA.

  2. It isn’t cut and dried. Not all humans are the same, with the same motivations and experiences. Punishment as retribution may be necessary to appease raging injustice in the victims – if Leroy hits Ahmed on the head with his football, Ahmed should be able to reasonably expect Leroy to be deprived of the ball for the rest of the week. That’s not to say that every child needs to see retribution.

    Ditto deterrence: I was raised in a smacking household and attended a caning school full of nuns who were bent on saving my soul by thrashing my body. Disproportionate physical punishment became so much an accepted consequence of wrong-doing that I was able to quite coldly calculate the balance of doing what I wanted against the expected severity of pain and choosing on that basis. Most children now would feel violated and traumatised by corporal punishment in school (because they’ve been told they would, but that’s another argument) and, because they know damn well it’ll never happen, the threat is no deterrent at all. It was no deterrent to me either because it was a common part of school life, a trade-off. A deterrent has to be both feared and inevitable.

    Restorative Justice is the Big Thing at our school and all I can bring myself to say about it is that the very kids who are expected to benefit by it laugh at it; they’ve got off. Their victims are doubly injured, first by the offence, then by the smirking.

    Rehabilitation isn’t something that happens often or meaningfully enough even in penal institutions required to provide it, for the same reasons it won’t happen in school – staffing, money and idealogical conflict.

    Children are prone to do wrong in school because they are being made to do something we know to be to their eventual benefit, but which the immediacy of their immaturity blinds them to. We have to MAKE them do it or give it up. Some schools choose appeasement and entertainment as the means of keeping the kids, and for some kids it works. Some choose a hard line in rules and punishment and for some of them it works too. I don;t think you’lll ever get one system that works for everyone, and you sure as hell won’t get one that everyone agrees with to the extent that they won’t subtly sabotage it.

  3. What is it about punishment that creates such verbiage and to such little result?
    My you lot do go on. Yet punishment and for that matter reward are as instinctive as eating.

  4. Instinctive, cramerj?

    Just think of all the adjectives that can be sensibly attached to the words.

    Punishments can be just, unjust, corporal, capital, reasonable, unreasonable, pointless, prolonged, proportionate, disproportionate, collective, prompt, delayed, harsh, severe, fitting, mild, arbitrary, prescribed, horrifying, inescapable, avoidable, excessive, laughable, shocking, right, wrong. Then work out how often we will agree on which of these words should apply in any given case. Are my instincts the same as yours? (Do the same with rewards.)

    The Sisters of Show-no-mercy that Lily describes would be mystified by the no nonsense but no violence techniques in Nanny-type parent advice. As would the love-is-all-you-need parents of those ghastly ankle biters in the local cafe.

    The big issue is that we deal with large groups of children from different backgrounds. If their parents have not socialised them adequately, then the school has to play a role. But they are children and adolescents. They have a keen sense of justice and injustice, even if it is ludicrously skewed at times. It is their sense of rightness and wrongness in the social situation of the school (and the street and the workplace and…) that has to be taught and reinforced.

    When Jo hits, steals, spits or swears, they don’t care if Jo has personal, family, psychological or any other “issues”. They like to know that Jo’s comeuppance is prompt and certain, just as it will be for Ali, Kris, Toni and everyone else who does the same thing.

  5. “punishment and for that matter reward are as instinctive as eating.”

    This is just today. I appreciate I can supply no evidence that I’m not just making this up but bear with me: a boy who was witnessed barging a teacher into a doorpost on Monday was sent home for the rest of that day. Today he is back, and in the lesson of the teacher he assaulted. He has “issues” which the staff are not permitted to know of.
    The Police came into school because a TA was not satisfied with the treatment he received from school for his offence – he groped her as she leant across a table – and called the Police herself. I will bet my pension he is back in before the end of the week, taken out of lessons in the meantime for An Understanding Chat.
    Two Y10 boys who were placed in Inclusion for the day simply ran out of it and galloped around the school causing disruption and damage. This is at least the fifth time this term. And yet they keep coming back.
    Another Y10 boy stole my keys yesterday. His mother took them off him and brought them into school, God bless her. I would have been tempted to call the Police if it were not for the difficulty of proving that I didn’t just drop them somewhere; and that his mother is doing her best to straighten him out. He will be placed in Inclusion for one day.

    That’s one day in one school, and only the transgressions I personally know about. In no case can the punishment be said to fit the crime. There is no rehabilitation, deterrent or even vindictive revenge going on. There is nothing going on. We can’t exclude them even if they wouldn’t be delighted. We can give them a detention and do what? if they choose not to turn up. There were 40-odd on the detention register yesterday and 6 turned up.

    I accept that a lot of this is the fault of the school’s gutless and literally hopeless management, the zeitgeist regarding corporal punishment, the largely pointless parents and also the LA’s fining of schools that permanently exclude pupils. I don’t accept that punishment is instictive as eating. Round here it’s practically extinct.

  6. Good answer, Lily.

    I do get a bit bemused when I read comments that apparently assume that I am arguing against a position that nobody holds.

    If only it were so.

  7. Your post reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ book, That Hideous Strength. In it, a man who was to be released from prison was instead sent somewhere else to be “reformed.” Lewis argues, in his wonderfully subtle away, against reformation as opposed to punishment.

    You know that those kids who get a slap on the hand and a nice talk about “values” are walking away smirking.

  8. If punishment and reward are as instinctive as breathing then why do school (my last school in particular) get it so wrong so often.

    For example:

    The young man who regularly sexually assaulted girls, threatened staff and got his genitalia out in my lesson- Punishment: a one day exclusion

    The teacher who repeatedly reported the assaults for six months and refused to teach him until he was dealt with- reward: told he was the only one having this problem (not true but everyone else too scared to report him). Turned down for threshold because of inability to manage this pupils behaviour for half of year 10. Managed to sort out his behaviour with perseverance at the end of year 10 and during year 11. Rewarded for making him behave tolerably (just) by being one of two teachers whose lesson he was allowed to attend (and ruin). Entered for exam and thrown out of the exam for threatening an invigilator.
    Punishment for this: none

    As instinctive as breathing? I think not.

    And that’s before we even start on the pernicious, nasty little scumbags who are rewarded when they briefly stop being scumbags while pupils that are pleasant, polite and well behaved get ignored completely.

  9. I think ‘punishment’ is often something that teachers talk about to make themselves feel better – regardless of what the students deserve, it is more about what the teachers want to see done.

  10. And I think that casting aspersions on the motives of people that disagree with them – regardless of any solid reason to support the ad hominems – is something that idiots do when they don’t actually have a proper argument.

  11. DoS
    I’m a bit perplexed about yr emphasis on the teacher – “what the teachers want to see done” – as an individual. What about the teacher as the representative of the school in the classroom or as the leader / guide / mentor of the group of people in the classroom?

    When we’re discussing adolescents, we’re not talking about the eager to please eight year old child. We’re talking about people on the verge of adult life. If teenage learners won’t respond to teachers as teachers, perhaps we should start treating their classrooms as an apprenticeship for adult group relationships.

    If a workplace trainer or a conference facilitator or a work supervisor dealt with the kind of behaviours that OA constantly cites, what would happen? I can tell you because I’ve trained adults (real ones, not just didn’t-make-it-at-school-so-now-I’m-here ones) as well as working in large organisations. They’d be forced to repeat, excluded, transferred, failed, demoted or sacked. Maybe all of these in succession. Never saw anything like OA’s issues. Some fierce arguments about racism, sexism and so on in Equal Opportunity training can lead to some very disgruntled people – never to this kind of violent anarchy. Why not? Because jobs, reputations, promotions are at stake, that’s why.

    Adults bored by compulsory training in a topic they don’t respect don’t jump on desks or shout at anyone. They take the fewest possible notes, they give minimum replies in worksheets and they grumble about wasting time away from “real” work. But they do get it done, usually with the least possible fuss.

    All behaviour is social. A classroom is a social environment, it is not just a teacher with 30 simultaneous individual transactions minute by minute. Pretending that it is is silly, and is often pernicious in the way it affects classroom management.

  12. I think Gatto has written about this somewhere. From his experience in New York City schools, he identified a large part of the problem being that punishment was taken out of the hands of those directly involved: you had to fill in tons of forms, a committee was formed to investigate, etc., etc., and maybe… 6 months later, something would be done. Or maybe not. I can’t recall a punishment example, but Gatto saw it as part and parcel of the bureaucratization of schooling, and I remember the example he gave. In his classroom there was a hole in the floor and pupils would regularly throw things down this hole onto the heads of pupils in the classroom below. He informed the relevant people and waited but nothing was done. One night, tired of waiting, he simply got busy with planks, hammer and nails. He got into trouble for that, of course: he hadn’t followed proper procedure. (That wasn’t about punishment, but the principle is the same.)

    This is all speculation, as the laws now penalize teachers who try to take the law into their own hands, but perhaps punishment would be more effective if it were immediate and handed out by those directly involved, i.e. the teacher who was barged into a door, the person who was groped, or whatever, instead of being passed on to a distant functionary.
    Where I work, a kid was caught trying to videotape a young lady in the lavatory. The decision was made to expel him, but I wondered at the time why the school was punishing the boy (both students are adults)? Let the young lady decide the punishment, as she was the injured party, not the school. The school could act as abritators and executors of the punishment. And while expelling the boy was not inappropriate, I thought, a cash payment or some other token of contrition, something demanded by the injured party, might have been more effective as a deterrent, I thought.

    • The point is that it is not about what is the most effective deterrant, or even about what the victim wants. It is about justice.

      • I’ve re-read your paragraph above about deterrence. The paragraph warns against the dangers of aiming solely at deterrence, how it can be misused, e.g. by collective or random punishment on the innocent as well as the guilty. Agreed (tho I would argue that unjust “deterrence” will eventually backfire and therefore fail in its objective). But that does not mean that deterrence should not be one of the objectives of punishment. What the victim wants should not be the deciding factor in punishment, but taking it into account might convince perpetrators that justice is being done.

        And if justice is done but there is no deterrent? If you are claiming that justice always includes (or aims to include) deterrence, then I wholeheartedly agree.

  13. Thanks for writing this article. I had not been aware of the importance of the concept of desert, and this article has given me food for thought about justice and punishment. The comments and your responses are educational.

  14. The CS Lewis article referred to is online here.

    • I know.

  15. […] now understand much better why you referred to Lewis’ essay on punishment. The importance of choice is neatly summed up in “Morality and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: