The paternalist theory of punishment

Notes for March 27

Main points

We began with Lewis’s defense of retributivism against what he called the “humanitarian” approach to punishment. (The humanitarian approach treats crime as an illness that requires treatment.)

Then we turned to Morris’s paternalistic theory of punishment. Morris’s theory treats punishment as something that improves the wrongdoer, so it at least superficially looks like what Lewis called the humanitarian theory. We talked about the extent to which Morris’s theory addresses Lewis’s objections.

Morris’s idea

Morris’s big idea is to look at how punishment works in child development. He isolates two features of the punishment of children:

  1. It helps to make them autonomous moral individuals by teaching them the difference between right and wrong and holding them responsible for their behavior.
  2. It alleviates guilt by enabling the child to pay the debt for wrongdoing. In that way, punishment enables social relations to return to normal after having been disrupted by wrongdoing.

His idea is that the punishment of adults should follow the same pattern. At least part of the story is that it would be confusing if punishment in the adult world was too different from punishment received in childhood. Given that we learned to be moral agents through punishment when we were children, we need punishment of adults to follow the same patterns.


We raised two significant questions about Morris’s theory.

First, we had questions about the people who do not feel guilt for their crimes and cannot be restored to being morally autonomous individuals. (Lazaros especially reminded us of this.) Morris suggests that, for people like this, there cannot be a moral justification of punishment (see p. 269).

I hesitate to make too much of one sentence, but that strikes me as a problem. Why can’t society punish these people in self-defense, either to deter them or incapacitate them? Isn’t self-defense a moral justification for punishment? It does involve using the criminals as a “mere means” to society’s goals. But why isn’t society permitted to pursue the goal of safety for its members? What is so bad about treating someone as a mere means to that end?

Second, Sally asked why punishment restores social relationships. I do not recall much of a story. I think Morris is right to say that it does do this. But, like Sally, I am curious about why it does this.

There is a related question about whether punishment is necessary for restoring relationships. I would have thought the more natural way of restoring relationships would be for the wrongdoer to apologize and make amends. Punishment, by contrast, is imposed on the person who has done wrong by others. Maybe that’s a way of working out our anger at the person who wronged us. But why wouldn’t a heartfelt apology and reparations be even better?

I suppose it’s possible that this just isn’t the way our minds work. Perhaps we need to hurt the people who hurt us before we are willing to resume normal relations with them. If that is so, only punishment will do; an apology will not be enough.

Key concepts

  1. The main points of Lewis’s defense of retributivism
  2. How punishment of children works
  3. Why Morris thinks this is relevant to the punishment of adults
This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2014. It was posted March 28, 2014.
Philosophy of Law