- The deliberate infliction of harm upon somebody, or the withdrawal of some good from them, by an authority, in response to their being supposed to have committed some offence. Sometimes punishment may be inflicted upon an animal, or ritualistically upon an inanimate thing. The philosophical problem with punishment is that since it involves the infliction of some kind of harm, or deprivation of some kind of good, it transgresses normal ethical boundaries, and therefore requires specific ethical justification. The major elements in such a justification have been felt to be: (i) retribution: if a person has inflicted some harm on another, then justice requires retribution (see also justice, retributive ); (ii) reparation: if a person has harmed another, then he owes a duty of reparation to the victim, which his punishment provides; (iii) reformation: the harm inflicted teaches the criminal to behave better in the future; (iv) deterrence: knowledge of the penalties deters potential offenders; (v) prevention: an offender who is deprived of opportunity (e.g. by being imprisoned) cannot repeat the offence. Features (iii) and (iv) are often conjoined with (v), in an indirect utilitarian approach, in which it is argued that a society with an institution of punishment in place will enjoy better conditions of life than any without it. A thought more popular among judges than philosophers is that punishment simply expresses society's revulsion at some kind of behaviour, and needs no other defence. The difficulty is that judges are often revolted by too many things, such as long hair, youth, and poverty.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.