Book Chapter

Retrieving Retributivism


Duff RA (2011) Retrieving Retributivism. In: White M (ed.) Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-24.

First paragraph: Retributivism needs saving not only from its plentiful enemies, but from some of its would-be friends. More precisely, since there are so many different accounts of punishment calling themselves "retributivist" that we might wonder whether the term picks out a single school of thought,[i] what needs saving is what I take to be the core retributivist thought: that what gives criminal punishment its meaning and the core of its normative justification is its relationship, not to any contingent future benefits that it might bring, but to the past crime for which it is imposed. The challenge for a would-be retributivist is to explain that thought and to explain that justificatory relationship in a way that makes themit both intelligible and morally plausible: morally plausible, in particular, as an account of criminal punishment in a liberal democracy, since that is the context in which, for most likely readers of this book, criminal punishment operates. Retributivism needs saving, and the core retributivist thought needs retrieving, from those who interpret it in ways that fail to make it morally plausible. Such failures are found among advocates of retributivism as well as among its critics. They are found most obviously among political advocates, in the depressingly familiar penal rhetoric that makes it sound as if the sole aim of a system of criminal justice is to inflict harsh suffering on offenders. But they are also found among theoretical defenders of retribution, who are too prone to portray criminal punishment as consisting simply in the deliberate infliction of suffering on passive recipients who are said to deserve it. [i] See Cottingham, "Varieties of Retribution."

Publication date31/12/2011
PublisherOxford University Press
Publisher URL
Place of publicationOxford