The right to punish – can we conceive of a just punishment?

On what is the right to punish based? Why punish? Is the punishment just?

These three questions will be addressed here from the perspective of philosophy and the history of ideas, from Plato to our time with Michel Foucault.

They will be answered in three movements: first, it must be established that the right to punish is necessary; even if it proves to be unhealthy; finally, it must be found that it is nevertheless based on human nature.

The Right to Punish Is Necessary

Plato (c. 427-348) in the Gorgias associates punishment and justice. He tries to show how a punishment can be just.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) believes that the crime must be punished. The law must be applied, such as the law of retaliation.

Punishment is a deterrent: men do not come to wrongdoing for fear of punishment.

Punishment is also a means of educating: a child or a criminal.

No state without punishment, because punishment guarantees the respect of laws: indeed, the State is sovereign of the “monopoly of legitimate violence” according to the expression of Max Weber.

The right to punish is unhealthy

Karl Marx (1818–1883) shows that punishment is only the visible face of a power relationship in reality.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) thinks that punishment is above all the concretization of man’s taste for cruelty and blood.

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) sees in punishment a simple means for man to control minds and bodies, to impose his yoke.

The right to punish is based on human nature

For Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), both force and right are needed. Punishment represents this force.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) concludes that man becomes free only through coercion.

Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) believes that the right to punish is above all a right for the dignity of the criminal. Moreover, punishment is inherent to the very notion of right.

General Knowledge: justice