The idea of issuing punishment for justice, because the agent of some crime "deserves" it has always bothered me.

How does one justify what one deserves? Obviously this is a subjective value judgement, and there are so many variables at play. There does not seem to be any objective means, but I know little about the systems and theories that exist and are in place.

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    Kant, Fichte and Hegel certainly have. Perhaps I will have time for an answer with sources and contents later.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 0:15
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    the notion or value of retribution, in and of itself, has been debated for centuries. personally, i feel it's sorta an "Old Testament" notion of the nature of God (which good humans emulate). the "New Testament" notion is that if, standing before God, i get what i fully deserve, my body and soul are instantly carbonized to a crisp. Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 22:48

2 Answers 2


In my opinion, the modern understanding of "deserving punishment" goes something like this:

  • The emergence of altruistic punishment (as distinct from vengeance) can be explained by evolutionary game theory (which btw can also explain spite, vengeance etc.), and in particular, by models and simulations based thereon. I don't know the details, but you can run off and learn the math and even write your own computer simulations to convince yourself of this.

  • Presumably, the idea of "deserving punishment" then naturally emerges in order to help people view themselves in a positive light (I am moral, I am decent etc.) despite that we sometimes punish other people with ridicule, ostracization, and even violence, etc., and despite that we often authorize others to punish people by these and other means. I recall reading that social psychologists have long known that if you can convince someone that they are a bad person, you make them more likely to behave badly, so this is actually pretty important.


Welcome to the imperfect world.

People have kind of agreed to have governments, which create laws, which among other things set up punishments for crimes. There are multiple reasons for those punishments, including deterrence, revenge, keeping dangerous people away, and some amount of deservedness.

But if you look at the laws, there is no notion of "deserved punishment" in there. The laws says if you do this then you get that punishment. Not any reasoning why, just the relationship that a certain crime receives a punishment. All the arguing about the reasons has happened before the law was created. And any person is free to read the laws, and decide whether they want to commit some crime based on the punishment by the law (actually, most people decide on moral or ethical grounds).

Sure there will be different criminals who you might argue "deserve" a punishment to a higher or lesser degree. But that is irrelevant. The law doesn't care what each individual "deserves".

And "deserving" cannot be used anyway exactly because it is subjective. It's obvious that anyone who steals from me deserves the hardest punishment possible. Well, it's obvious to me. You and everyone else will disagree. Because it's subjective. The law doesn't care about this.

  • "and some amount of deservedness."
    – hellyale
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 0:56
  • How is that determined, is what I am asking... what amount of deservedness and why?
    – hellyale
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 0:58
  • Why doesn't the law care about this? Shouldn't the law care about that?
    – hellyale
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 0:59

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