Philosophy of Law Spring 2018

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. Given these beliefs, punishment poses an obvious problem for her.

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

Nico and Sophia asked what the educational theory would do with people who cannot be educated. They had different kinds of case in mind. Sophia was asking about people who are mentally ill and so incapable of learning. I think that Nico had in mind more someone who could learn to be a good person but is unwilling to do so. I think that Hampton’s theory would have different implications.

I think she would say that there is not much of a case for punishing Sophia’s person who is incapable of learning moral lessons. What’s the point?

You could, of course, ask a similar question about Nico’s person who is unwilling to learn. What’s the point? Here, though, I think she would say that we owe it to that person to offer the educational lesson of punishment. If he takes it, good. If not, we have at least shown respect for him as someone who could learn.

In addition, she might say that punishment offers a lesson to the rest of society: we mean it when we say that you should not commit crimes. That has an educational value even for people who have not committed crimes themselves.

Niyati asked about punishment for disobeying moral laws. Justin quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying that there is still a point in showing respect for the law. On the other hand, I said that I wasn’t sure there would be a point to punishing acts of civil disobedience against immoral laws. What are we supposed to teach them? Surely not that obeying the immoral law was the right thing to do.

Anikka asked whether Hampton’s view would lead to punishing people for making imprudent choices. Say I put myself into the position of needing to steal to feed my family because I had gambled all of our money away. Should I be punished for putting myself in that position? I think she is right to suspect that this view of punishment is of a piece with some fairly heavy handed paternalistic behavior on the part of the state. If the state’s job is to make us better people, then it will do quite a lot to educate us in all walks of life. That said, I don’t think that punishment for unwise decisions would be appropriate. Punishment is reserved for behavior that is forbidden and directly harms others. For better or worse, we allow people to make bad decisions because we value individual liberty. We wait to punish them until they have crossed a line and hurt someone else.

Nico asked how it was possible to punish someone without limiting their autonomy. Justin described some possible reforms that would increase the autonomy prisoners have; Miriam added some experiences that seemed in line with his suggestion. Autumn said that punishment is an expression of respect for the offenders autonomy. It shows that we treat the offender as responsible for what he or she did. So while it is true that punishment limits autonomy by locking the offender up, it is a limitation that we have to impose if we take autonomy seriously.

Main points

These are the points that you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  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.


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