Obviously, punishment itself can have an extrinsic value: it may encourage fewer people to offend. But how has anyone argued for the intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, value of retributive justice?

I imagine that the idea is that some people have performed etc. so much evil that they forfeit the claim to freedom, happiness, etc.. But losing a right to something isn't the same thing as having that thing taken away.

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    I am not clear about whether the question in the title and the question in the text ask the same thing. Dec 29, 2019 at 8:28
  • References : Stanford Encyclopedia ( online) See Punishment ; Retributive justice
    – user39744
    Dec 29, 2019 at 9:26
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    This is oddly phrased, if X has intrinsic value then it is valuable for its own sake, not justified for the sake of something else. One either believes that justice must be served or one doesn't, see SEP Justice as a Virtue.
    – Conifold
    Dec 29, 2019 at 12:05
  • so intrinsic values are just a matter of opinion, there can be no argument about them? that seems wrong @Conifold
    – user38026
    Dec 29, 2019 at 18:24
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    I think what you really want is not intrinsic but non-utilitarian. In any case, SEP covers pretty much everything "justification" can reasonably mean.
    – Conifold
    Dec 31, 2019 at 3:45

3 Answers 3


Kant argues that retributive justice is intrinsically good, as it is a "categorical imperative", i.e. it constitutes a categorical obligation, discovered by pure reason, to punish a criminal. He rather says that punishment can be just only if it is retributive, and not because it serves some other sociopolitical ends.

Hence, as a categorical imperative, the society is ethically obliged to inflict punishment for a wrongdoing. Such a punishment is an end in itself.

However, since the categorical imperative opposes anything carried out through impulse or natural inclination, a punishment out of hatred or desire for revenge is immoral. It should be made as per the cold calculations of justice alone.

Reference (Page 320-323)

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    To be fair to Kant here, one should also mention what is made much clearer by Fichte, but already is present in Kant: That the injustice done and, consequently, a proportionate punishment, are already part of the autonomous decision of the wrongdoers to do something wrong and that it in fact honours their being rational if one fully enacts all aspects of their action by executing a proportionate punishment. Like in fulfilling all aspects of ill intentions which should at least potentially be present when rationally deciding to do something wrong.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 8, 2020 at 20:40

Retributive justice is rooted in the primitive concept of 'fairness.' Its intrinsic value is something that every school-kid knows instinctively: "If you punch me, I get to punch you, then we're even." Of course, there are tremendous issues with determining what's 'fair' in adult contexts, and in particular it is difficult to distinguish the desire for retribution from the desire for vengeance; vengeance always calls for disproportionate punishment, because that seems 'fair' to the victim.

We can only talk about retributive justice by itself as an abstract ideal, because in the real world the concept of 'fairness' is far too subjective to be operationalized uniformly. However, every form of systematic justice aims at fairness of one sort or another, so they all implicitly require retribution of one sort or another. Retributive justice is always blended into other conceptions (such as prevention and rehabilitation).


The long and the short of it is that retribution and restoration are both natural moral motives/purposes/what-have-you, so the issue is a priority problem like Kant's regarding happiness and virtue (as outlined in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone) or Rawls' two principles of Justice. Sociopolitical systems founded on the priority of retribution gravitate towards authoritarianism (since you need an external authority to punish others but not to redeem oneself), which suggests that punishment is a less pressing concern, ideally/all things considered.

See also (though I myself have yet to actually read it) Foucault on discipline and punishment (I think).

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