Philosophy, Department of


Date of this Version



Chapter 9 in Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian Social Philosophy (Jane Kneller and Sidney Axinn, editors). Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.


Copyright 1998, SUNY Press. Used by permission.


There has been a considerable renaissance in retributivism as a theory of the justification of punishment in the second half of this century. Retributivism is often defended as if it were a particularly hardy moral intuition, a basic free-standing moral principle that is underivable from any broader theory or set of principles. In this vein it is often "supported" through the presentation of outrageous and horribly cruel crimes, especially against persons, particularly murder, in order to elicit what may be thought to be the natural and appropriate emotional response, a response of anger, indignation, and desire for retribution. Under such accounts the retributive idea has little to do with ethics thought of as a rationally defended systematic theory.

In the history of retributivism, Kant has a prominent place. He was one of the classic defenders of a tough retributivism, at a time when the new humaneness and teleology in the theory of punishment was making its first headway with the help of (equally classic) Enlightenment writers like Beccaria. I wish to show that Kant did not regard retribution as a basic, underivable moral principle; rather, he is concerned, as far as possible, to find a rational basis for the idea of retribution, and to relate it closely to the root ideas of his moral philosophy: the categorical imperative (CI), and the idea of respect for persons. Kant's theory of punishment has been discussed usually as a series of statements that have been considered for their implications for the justification of punishment; it is less often considered with respect to its basis in the broader Kantian practical philosophy.