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. A punishment system that relies solely on deterrence would treat people as if they were things that they are not: non-human animals who are incapable of reasoning.

Contrast with retributivism

Retributivist theories of punishment hold that people who wrong others deserve to be harmed themselves. That is the purpose of punishment: giving people the harm they deserve.

Hampton, however, does not believe that it is ever acceptable to harm someone. She agrees with Plato and Jesus Christ that “the only thing human beings ‘deserve’ in this life is good” and “that no matter what evil a person has committed, no one is justified in doing further evil to her” (1984, 237).

The education theory of punishment is supposed to explain how punishment can meet this standard: it is good for people to learn to be better.

At the same time, she believes, punishment will still be deserved: it will be applied only to the guilty and it will communicate that their behavior is intolerable and wrong.

Our discussion

We had a very interesting discussion, largely centered around Austin’s contention that deterrence is what really justifies punishment, with education serving as, at best, a superficial addition.

There were a variety of ways of filling that point out. For instance, it seems quite plausible to say that most criminals have rational motivations when they commit their crimes and that they are not ignorant of the law when they do so. So what do we expect education to accomplish? If they were thinking about things accurately, with full knowledge, they would do exactly what they did. So if they were fully educated they would not change. The only way to get people not to engage in anti-social behavior is the boring one of deterring them: making it contrary to their interests.

Hampton’s reply to this point is that they do not have full knowledge. In particular, they do not correctly weigh their interests against those of other people. The point of education is to get them to care about others appropriately. That isn’t education in the sense of learning what the law says. It is more like the education people hope to give to their children when they teach them right and wrong.

One addition to Austin’s point occurred to me later. We might add that society is probably not obliged to create a system of moral education to make criminals better people. I think it is a lot more plausible to say that society is obliged to create a system of punishment in order to protect its members by deterring or incapacitating criminals. That looks like a way of spelling out Austin’s original conjecture that it is deterrence that is really doing all the work in justifying punishment.

What Hampton seems to have in mind is that respect for autonomy constrains the means we are permitted to use in pursuing the end of deterring crime. There are lots of things we could do to deter crime, but we are only willing to do the morally acceptable ones. (I won’t regale you with morally unacceptable ones; you can imagine some on your own.) The education theory is supposed to tell us how punishment might be acceptable even if the general justifying aim of punishment is to deter crime.

We also had a series of questions about Hampton’s commitment to an objective conception of ethics (see Hampton 1984, 213). If we are going to educate criminals about moral reasons there has to be something for them to learn after all. Some of us thought this was a problem on the grounds that objective conceptions of morality are false. Aside from that, some laws are not best seen as expressing any moral requirements. Some legally required actions are morally indifferent: there is nothing right or wrong about driving on the right as opposed to the left side of the road. And some are downright wrong: think of the ways your tax money is being spent on purposes that you regard as bad. I think Hampton would have to say that there is a higher-level moral duty to obey the law that is separate from moral duties derived from the content of the law. That could explain how otherwise indifferent acts could be made obligatory. It might explain why you should comply with at least some laws that, taken by themselves, strike you as immoral. But I should confess that I do not know exactly how to spell this out for her purposes.

A note on the reading

The article is too long. The next time I teach it, I am going to tell students only to read the first part (pp. 208–21) and the very last section (pp. 235–38).

Those are also the only parts that I will use in the final exam for this course. My apologies for not having truncated the reading earlier.

Key concepts

  1. Hampton’s moral assumptions about harm and autonomy; why she rejects retributivism.
  2. What is deficient about deterrence as a justification for punishment, according to Hampton.
  3. What you think about Austin’s contention that deterrence is what is fundamentally important.


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