I found this paper amongst my collection. It’s a paper on the different reasons for providing punishment to offenders from the different ethical schools of thought.


Since the dawn of human civilization, there seems to have been punishment for behaviors that do not benefit society at large. It is with good reason that those who commit crimes are punished, at it’s very core, a punishment decrees public disgust toward criminal behavior.

According to Brasswell, McCarthy, and McCarthy there are four different reasons proposed for punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, treatment, and [just] deserts (2008). Each of the four has it’s merits as well as negatives, so each also has its proponents and detractors.


If a child observes his older brother spanked for taking cookies from a cookie jar, it stands to reason that he will learn from his brother’s mistake and refrain from stealing from the cookie jar himself. In this way, deterrence is linked with rational choice theory, in that individuals will weigh the likelihood of being caught as well as the severity of punishment prior to committing a crime (Brasswell, McCarthy, McCarthy, 2008).

Deterrence is advantageous in that it, if theoretically applied properly, prevents the reoffense of an offender or the first offense of an individual considering a crime. However, deterrence, as it relies upon an individuals ability to make a rational choice in weighing consequences, may be entirely ineffective in situations where the offender is mentally handicapped or in some other way unable to weigh consequences of his or her decisions. Furthermore, deterrence is slanted to the benefit of the masses as opposed to taking the offenders needs into consideration (Brasswell, McCarthy, McCarthy, 2008).


Incapacitation, an increasingly popular tactic in the United States as of late, holds to the concept that an individual cannot victimize society with criminal behavior if he or she is not given opportunity to commit crime. This means individuals held in jails and prisons are not able to reoffend. A second advantage is that individuals may well outgrow their criminality during their incapacitation, as age has shown to be a major factor in likelihood to commit crime.

Unfortunately, incapacitation runs the risk of punishing individuals for future crimes they have not in fact committed (Brasswell, McCarthy, McCarthy, 2008). Instead they are held in prison because it is uncertain as to whether or not they will commit a future crime. It is also a heavy financial burden on the justice system to incarcerate individuals for great lengths of time.


Whereas incapacitation and deterrence focus upon the immediate utilitarian benefits for society, treatment is more in line with a peace making approach to dealing with offender recidivism. Treatment options run the gamut from para military style boot camps to drug rehabilitation centers. It has been shown that treatment can be quite effective in preventing future crime as it may deal with the underlying causes of an individuals criminality.

As with incarceration, it difficult to ascertain which criminals would be prevented from committing future crimes due to their treatment (Brasswell, McCarthy, McCarthy, 2008). There are also certain types of criminals, such as child molesters, that are exasperatingly difficult to rehabilitate such that they will not become involved in future crimes.

Just Deserts

From a Kantian point of view we find the rationale for just deserts. From this perspective, crime is wrong and deserves to be punished regardless of any benefit to society (Brasswell, McCarthy, McCarthy, 2008). In it’s own way, just deserts can be very fair and just in it’s implementation.

As previously mentioned, just deserts does not factor in the needs of society. A just deserts perspective on a country doctor murdering another individual in an act of temporary blinding rage would receive a death sentence to be carried out; however, the many more individuals may die as a result of there being no doctor in his area. While this example is rather extreme, it does point out a potential flaw in punishment based upon just deserts.


Whatever the rationale for punishment, it is obvious that society cannot function without some system of punishment. As communities it is important to decide first whether punishment should focus on societal needs or the needs of individual offenders as well as weigh the potential costs and benefits of differing views on punishment.


Braswell, M. C., McCarthy, B. R., & McCarthy, B. J. (2008). Justice, crime, and ethics, 6th ed.. Newark: Andersen Publishing.