Notes for Thursday, November 6, 2014

Main ideas

Hampton is a lot like Morris. She thinks that punishment can be justified only if it benefits the person being punished; she thinks we can never harm another person and that, in particular, we cannot interfere with people’s autonomy. These premises pose an obvious problem for punishment.

She proposes the education theory as a rationale for punishment that fits her ethical assumptions. The idea is that punishment is justified if and only if it gets the wrongdoer

“to reflect on the moral reasons for that barrier’s [the law’s prohibition] existence so that he will make the decision to reject the prohibited action for moral reasons, rather than for the self-interested reason of avoiding pain.” (1984, 212)

Furthermore, she holds that,

“on the moral education view it is incorrect to regard simple deterrence as the aim of punishment; rather, to state it succinctly, the view maintains that punishment is justified as a way to prevent wrongdoing insofar as it can teach both wrongdoers and the public at large the moral reasons for choosing not to perform an offense.” (1984, 213)

Our discussion

One thing that seems right about this is the idea that punishment communicates as well as harming. That is a dimension of punishment not captured by either the consequentialist or retributive views.

As with Morris, we started by talking about how punishment communicates. Sydney noted that the death penalty would be ruled out on this view: it can’t teach the person being punished anything.

Reese thought that Hampton could not support her view within standard Christian theology since, according to that, force never educates. We talked about whether it could (going outside that framework, obviously). For instance, Sydney thought that Morris had made a pretty good point that force does educate children. (And, Morris would add, adults need to be treated in ways that are at least similar to the way they learned as children.) I think Hampton and Morris also have a decent point that punishment shows that we really mean it: we aren’t just saying that some behavior is bad, but we show we’re serious by attaching a significant cost to it.

Bogdan and I thought it was relevant to ask why people are motivated to commit crimes in the first place. Only some motivations seemed to call for education. We were especially unsure about crimes with economic motivations.

We also talked about how much punishment would be justified under this theory. Jiacheng said that he didn’t see a case for sentences whose severity varies with the seriousness of the crime. A basic sentence that is the same for every crime should be enough to communicate society’s disapproval. Sydney disagreed. She thought that different sentences convey different degrees of disapproval.


Hampton, Jean. 1984. “The Moral Education Theory of Punishment.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13: 208–38.

This page was written by Michael Green for Seminar on Punishment, Philosophy 185B, Fall 2014. It was posted December 3, 2014.
Seminar on Punishment