Two Mistakes about the Concept of Punishment

Vincent Geeraets*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This article identifies two mistakes commonly made about the concept of punishment. First, confusion exists about when an analysis of punishment counts as retributive, and when as justificatorily neutral. In particular, a fair number of legal scholars claim to analyze punishment in a neutral way, but closer inspection shows that many of these definitions are not justificatorily neutral. Second, legal scholars tend to analyze the concept of punishment very restrictively, with a focus on the intention of the legislator. While there may be good reasons to restrict the scope of the concept of punishment in the legal arena, from a philosophical point of view, restrictive analysis is not fruitful. It is a bad starting point for critical evaluation, because it is perfectly possible for impositions generally experienced as punitive not to be classified as such. This is all the more troublesome given that these impositions often contain fewer safeguards than are offered in criminal law and that there is sometimes a taboo on the language game related to punishment. I argue that these problems can be overcome by embracing an inclusive, justificatorily neutral concept of punishment that takes the outward appearance of the harm inflicted as its starting point.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-35
Number of pages15
JournalCriminal Justice Ethics
Issue number1
Early online date6 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018


  • definition of punishment
  • retributivism
  • utilitarianism
  • Zaibert


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