This post is meant to be a catalog of the main categories of reasons given for why people who do bad things should be punished. I hope to use this as a basis for future posts. 

This isn't meant to analyse their internal motives for punishing people, but their stated socially acceptable reasons (i.e. not 2I really hate the guy and this gave me an excuse to hurt him"). Please comment if you think I missed out a category.

  1. Preventation
  2. Discouragement
  3. Justice
  4. Restoration
  5. Signalling
  6. Atonement
  7. Education
  8. Metareasons


In some cases punishment can prevent the person being able to commit the crime in the future. For example it's much more difficult to commit certain crimes in prison. This is relevant if you believe people who commit such crimes once are more likely to do it again.


The fact that a punishment is unpleasant discourages people from committing the crime if they expect they are likely to be punished. This can apply both to the person who receives the punishment, for whom the memory of the punishment will act as a future deterrent, and other people for whom the threat of punishment will do the same.


The idea that a wrong deserves another wrong, irrelevant of any benefits or costs of the punishment, or a desire for vengeance against the guilty party, irrelevant of any benefits or costs of the act of vengeance.


Some punishments attempt to right the wrong that was done by making the guilty party fix the damage done to the harmed party. For example fines may be of this type. In some cases the punishment may attempt to fix similar damage done to a third party - e.g. donating the fine towards an anti-racism charity after committing an act of racism against an individual.


It may be desired to signal that you do not agree with the actions of the guilty party. Punishing them can make that clear.


Some people may feel that the punishment atones for the harm that was done, meaning they are no longer (as) guilty for what they did.


In some cases the punishment may aim to change the worldview of the person undergoing the punishment in some way. For example sentencing somebody who parked in a disabled parking spot to community service at a disabled peoples charity may help make them more empathetic to the needs of disabled people in the future.


In some cases you may punish someone not because you personally see any of these reasons to punish them, but because other people do, and that gives you an incentive to do so. For example if other people won't associate with a criminal until he's undergone atonement, you may punish the criminal because you care about him, and want him to be able to interact with other people, even if you personally don't accept the idea of atonement. On the other hand, a politician may punish people in order to seem tough on crime - i.e. to fulfill the wishes of those who do see a reason to punish them.


Of course all these reasons are related to each other, and most peoples reasons for giving a particular punishment in a particular case are a confused tangle of lots of different concepts, often only vaguely formed. However I think separating them all out into distinct categories is a useful exercise for considering a utilitarian approach to punishment. I hope to investigate all of these in future posts.

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I think there are a number of non-rational (or pre-rational) motivations that drive many forms of punishment as well.

  • Revenge.  Evolved/Naive tit-for-tat strategy.
  • Envy.  Reduction in feeling the unfairness of someone getting away with something.
  • Spite.  Any chance to hurt someone, with some socially-acceptible justification.
  • Focus on "other".  Punishment is a good way to frame the target as out-group, and to be closer friends with the people helping to punish.

Not sure if you've seen the Anti Social Punishment post: In short, research shows some people tend to punish pro-social behaviours. To take vengeance on others for making the feel uncomfortable with their own antisocial behaviours, I guess? Not sure if it fits your list as a separate category but still an interesting context.

After reading it and some comments I also see:

  • Precommitment - you precommited to punish X to avoid X, hoping you will never have to execute the threat. I guess in this sense "punishment" as a word makes sense even for something that is never executed.
  • Social absolution - if somebody undergoes an official punishment, the people he encounters later may be more willing to integrate him into the group - without the official punishment there would be a neverending, unofficial exclusion

Thanks for your suggestions. Do you see precommitment as different to my Discouragement? If so where would the o be apply but not the other?

Hm, I would say Discouragement as you described is more generic: X happens and you want it to happen less, so you discourage it. My idea was to underline the Discouragement taken to the extreme level. X can happen, and you don't want it to ever happen. So you make a precommitment / ultimatum. In this sense Discouragement is the effect of ongoing, regular punishment, Precommitment is the effect of punishment that might happen in the future. But let's not discuss the words too much- in your future post please organize and describe as you wish. Looking forward to reading those btw.

Part 3 reads more as just plain revenge rather than a nebolous "justice"

Also not all outcomes that come from law fit into the category of punishment. For some things you might not be quilty of a thing but you might still be liable for it. Comparing a negative outcome from such a thing to punishment is probably fruitful and interesting but it might be a separate thing.


Defining crimes and punishments are pretty null and void if they don't come to pass in individual cases. Sometimes a edgecase comes in that would seem by case-by-case judgement to not be bad but because of avoidance for ex post facto the law can be fixed to only let similar future cases walk. Prejudice by judges and juries could make singled out ethnicities


Prison sentences can be used to allow the convict to be subject to increased mental health and drug addiction resources. While restoration is about counteracting the casts negative consequences this is about counteracting the convicts own bad state. Cycles of poor conditions can be broken by targeting the most needed. Suspension of other rights (freedom of movement etc) can aid in the effectiveness of these and the bar to bring in the "heavy guns" might be need to be met.


Fighting against the evils of the world might make you feel like you have done the days work. Dark aspects of yourself might be externalised into others and rejected via hateful actions. If you can prevent or fix it, showing scorn might serve a psychological function. If one is running a military nation but has criminalised murder one can trick to think oneself to be more peaceful.

In "Making a Statement" category you mean punishing may be a signalling strategy? That if I punish somebody for X (especially a friend or family member) I send an expensive signal that I'm really against X? "Signalling" looks like a common word around here, so it might be worthwhile to reword it using this vocabulary.

Great point, will do.