Hampton’s educational theory

Hampton 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)

Contrast with deterrence

Hampton regards deterrence as something that society needs but she does not regard society’s need for deterrence as a justification of punishment. (This struck me as a debatable assumption.)

Her idea is that we use deterrence to control both non-human and human animals. But people are different than other animals because they have the ability to understand why barriers have been put in the way of their doing what they want to do. Hampton thinks this ability should govern how we treat people: we should try to make them understand why they are being punished and not just deter them from committing further crimes.

Our discussion

We spent some time talking about whether it was plausible to describe crime as motivated by ignorance, such that education would be the proper response.

Taylor, for instance, was initially skeptical. After putting some examples on the board, I think we at least understood what she was thinking: criminals do not correctly balance their own interests against others’.

We were not sure that education could be reliably effective, even if it is an appropriate aim. We agreed that Hampton had a good point that punishment is necessary for education: we tell people not to commit crimes and punishment shows that we mean it. If we did not punish, our laws would be jokes. But that does not mean that punishment would be effective in educating criminals. If criminals just don’t care, then even if they know what the appropriate balance is, that will not prevent them from committing crimes in the future.

I think Hampton would be OK with that: she thinks that respect for a criminal’s autonomy means that we must offer the lesson even if the criminal refuses it. We are not a society that throws people into reeducation camps and refuses to let them leave until they officially repent.

Nonetheless, it also seems to me that it would be very odd if our rationale for punishment concerned education and that punishment was only rarely successful in educating anyone. So I would at least like to see some reason for thinking that punishment might succeed in its educational goal before I completely buy Hampton’s story.

Then again, she might legitimately say that punishment is justified only if it educates and so if our current forms of punishment do not educate, they have to be changed to ones that do educate. If our practices don’t fit the theory, it might be the practices that are wrong rather than the theory.

Sydney and Lane had an interesting angle: what about laws that do not overlap with morality? Do those caught speeding need moral education? Are there moral reasons to strictly comply with the traffic laws? (I am assuming that you can violate the law in ways that are not unsafe, such as by driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit or ignoring a stop light at a deserted intersection.)

Key concepts

  1. Hampton’s moral assumptions about harm and autonomy.
  2. What is deficient about deterrence as a justification for punishment, according to Hampton.
  3. Why punishment is necessary for education: it shows we mean it.
  4. Think through whether you think punishment could succeed in educating criminals.


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