Does Punishment Do More Good Than Harm? A Utilitarian Analysis

Deirdre Golash, American University

For the utilitarian, a social practice is justified insofar as it tends to produce a surplus of good over harm. Although the efficacy of punishment in preventing crime continues to be in dispute among criminologists, there is a small but respectable literature supporting the general idea that the crime-preventive benefits of incarceration outweigh its social costs. But these studies often assume that effects on offenders need not be considered, and thus that punitive policies are justified if the value of their crime-preventive effects is greater than their cost in tax dollars. If punishment is to be justified in utilitarian terms, however -- as providing more benefits than harms -- we cannot pick and choose among the harms done, counting some and not others. Thus, these analyses fail provide a utilitarian justification for the practice.

In this paper I analyze the justification for punishment in light of the current state of epirical knowledge about its effects. I suggest that it is doubtful that punishment produces more good than harm, and show what additional findings would be needed to support such an outcome. In closing, I argue that, even in the instances in which meeting these requirements does not itself require obviously unacceptable practices, well-known weaknesses in utilitarian reasoning preclude the justification of punishment on utilitarian grounds.

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Updated 05/20/2006