Philosophy of Law Fall 2019

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

The most important question is: “how does punishment educate?” Chloe said that punishment is at least a necessary condition of education: it shows that we’re serious when we say that criminal acts are forbidden. If we weren’t willing to attach some consequences, we would not effectively communicate that crimes are seriously wrong.

That leaves the question of whether punishment succeeds in educating. I think that the case is incomplete. Hampton doesn’t show how it would work. Her argument only maintains that punishment is justified only if it educates. If punishment can’t educate, then it follows that it’s not justified. I think she leaves that question open. (You can only do so much in one essay, after all.)

Sienna expressed some skepticism. She thought that punishment was mostly likely to educate people who don’t need it, namely, those who know that their crimes were wrong. For those who don’t understand why crimes are wrong, it’s hard to see how punishment would convince them to change their minds. I said that those who have theories like Hampton’s often draw on childhood development. We use punishment to teach children the difference between right and wrong and it seems to work. But, as Maddie pointed out, adults are not children and it is not obvious that the tactics that work on children would also work on adults.

Ross was concerned by her reliance on moral objectivism. I agreed with him. I don’t see why this is something she has to claim. Couldn’t a society use punishment to teach its own moral code, even if it is not objectively true?

Sarah said that punishment could be useful for educating people other than the criminal being punished. Berto said that sounds a lot like deterrence. Hampton insists that punishment has to be good for the person being punished and disapproves of inflicting pain on a person for the sake of influencing others. That said, I think Sarah is right to say that she did talk about how punishment can educate society at large. Perhaps her views are not completely consistent here.

Key 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.