Punishment and Personal Responsibility

Sammanfattning: What justifies punishment? What are the features of a justified penal regime? Answers to these questions often centre on punishment’s capacity to change unwanted behaviour, either by deterring would-be rule breakers or addressing their criminal motivations through various forms of rehabilitation. This book instead defends (a version of) the retributive theory of punishment, according to which punishment should aim to give rule breakers what they deserve. Why should desert play such a role in penal justice? The book dismisses the controversial notion of intrinsic-good retributivism, and instead proceeds to identify two merits of a penal regime that aspires to give rule breakers what they deserve. On the one hand, such a regime is in better alignment of central principles of justice, such as principles against punishing the innocent and taking pre-emptive action against potentially dangerous individuals. On the other hand, retributive punishment conveys attractive symbolic messages, which serve to validate rule breakers as personally responsible agents whose choices warrant respect. Having defended the retributive theory on normative grounds, the book then discusses a formidable factual criticism that hits all desert-sensitive theories: starting by questioning the alleged difference between scientific explanations and excuses, the book challenges the factual plausibility of the notion of personal responsibility and entertains the possibility of hard determinism being true. While hard determinism is a stronger position than one may think, a pragmatic argument can be made against it: given that libertarian free will is “worth wanting”, and given the epistemic uncertainty surrounding it, it is defensible to bet that determinism is false and that people indeed can be personally responsible for their actions. Punishment and Personal Responsibility may be understood as a defence of “prescientific” morality in the age of science.

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