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Punishment is the authoritative imposition of something negative or unpleasant on a person or animal in response to behavior deemed wrong by an individual or group.[1][2][3][4][5] The authority may be either a group or a single person, and punishment may be carried out formally under a system of law or informally in other kinds of social settings such as within a family.[2] Negative consequences administered without a breach of rules is not considered to be punishment, as described here.[4]

Four fundamental justifications for punishment include: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitations such as isolation in order to prevent the wrongdoer's having contact with potential victims,[6] though only retribution is central to the concept and none of the other justifications are guaranteed outcomes.[4]

Some of the conditions inherent in punishment may be present in some circumstances. However these cannot be described as punishment. Inflicting something negative, or unpleasant, on a person or animal, without authority is considered either spite or revenge, but is not punishment. In addition, the word punishment is a metaphor, as when a boxer experiences "punishment" during a fight. In other situations breaking the rules may be rewarded, and is therefore without negative consquences, and so cannot be considered punishment. Finally the condition of breaking (or breaching) the rules must be satisfied to be considered punisment.

Punishments differ in the degree of severity of their unpleasantness, and may include sanctions such as reprimands, deprivations of privileges or liberty, fines, incarcerations, ostracism, the infliction of pain, and the death penalty. Corporal punishment refers to punishments in which pain is intended to be inflicted upon the transgressor. Punishments may be judged as fair or unfair in terms of their degree of reciprocity and proportionality.[3] Punishment can be an integral part of socialization, and punishing unwanted behaviour is often part of a system of pedagogy or behavioral modification which also includes rewards.[7]


Etymology and context

The word is the abstract substantivation of the verb to punish, which has been recorded in English since 1340, deriving from Old French puniss-, an extended form of the stem of punir "to punish", from Latin punire "inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense", earlier poenire, from poena "penalty, punishment of great loss". Latin punire possibly was inspired by the Phoenician method of execution by means of crucifixion. Therefore the Carthaginian crosses were called signae poenae "signs of the Phoenicians".[citation needed]

Colloquial use of "punish" for "inflict heavy damage or loss" is first recorded in 1801, originally in boxing; the meaning "hard-hitting" is from 1811. Just deserts no doubt reflects this in modern theories of punishment.[citation needed]

The concept of matching fair consequences to crimes is called justice. The concept of punishments being abusively employed is called abuse of justice, a form of injustice, or (more generally) abuse of power. For example false imprisonment and political imprisonment are examples of where the authority has misused their power to impose punishments.


In philosophy

In common usage, the word "punishment" might be described as "an authorized imposition of deprivations — of freedom or privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens — because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically (though not invariably) involving harm to the innocent."[citation needed]

In psychology

Introduced by B.F. Skinner, punishment has a more restrictive and technical definition. Along with reinforcement it belongs under the Operant Conditioning category. Operant Conditioning refers to learning with either punishment or reinforcement. It is also referred to as response-stimulus conditioning. In psychology, punishment is the reduction of a behavior via application of an adverse stimulus ("positive punishment") or removal of a pleasant stimulus ("negative punishment"). Extra chores or spanking are examples of positive punishment, while making an offending student lose recess or play privileges are examples of negative punishment. The definition requires that punishment is only determined after the fact by the reduction in behavior; if the offending behavior of the subject does not decrease then it is not considered punishment. There is some conflation of punishment and aversives, though an aversive that does not decrease behavior is not considered punishment.

Scope of application

Punishments are applied for various purposes, most generally, to encourage and enforce proper behavior as defined by society or family. Criminals are punished judicially, by fines, corporal punishment or custodial sentences such as prison; detainees risk further punishments for breaches of internal rules. Children, pupils and other trainees may be punished by their educators or instructors (mainly parents, guardians, or teachers, tutors and coaches) - see Child discipline.

Slaves, domestic and other servants used to be punishable by their masters. Employees can still be subject to a contractual form of fine or demotion. Most hierarchical organizations, such as military and police forces, or even churches, still apply quite rigid internal discipline, even with a judicial system of their own (court martial, canonical courts).

Punishment may also be applied on moral, especially religious, grounds, as in penance (which is voluntary) or imposed in a theocracy with a religious police (as in a strict Islamic state like Iran or under the Taliban) or (though not a true theocracy) by Inquisition.

History and rationale

The progress of civilization has resulted in a change alike in the theory and in the method of punishment. In primitive society punishment was left to the individuals wronged or their families, and was vindictive or retributive: in quantity and quality it would bear no special relation to the character or gravity of the offense[citation needed].

Gradually there would arise the idea of proportionate punishment, of which the characteristic type is an eye for an eye. The second stage was punishment by individuals under the control of the state, or community[citation needed]; in the third stage, with the growth of law, the state took over the primitive function and provided itself with the machinery of justice for the maintenance of public order[citation needed]. Henceforward crimes are against the state, and the exaction of punishment by the wronged individual is illegal (compare Lynch Law).

Even at this stage the vindictive or retributive character of punishment remains, but gradually, and specially after the humanist movement under thinkers like Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, new theories begin to emerge. Two chief trains of thought have combined in the condemnation of primitive theory and practice.

On the one hand the retributive principle itself has been very largely superseded by the protective and the reformative; on the other punishments involving bodily pain have become objectionable to the general sense of society. Consequently corporal and even capital punishment occupy a far less prominent position, and tend everywhere to disappear.

It began to be recognized also that stereotyped punishments, such as belong to penal codes, fail to take due account of the particular condition of an offence and the character and circumstances of the offender. A fixed fine, for example, operates very unequally on rich and poor.

Modern theories date from the 18th century, when the humanitarian movement began to teach the dignity of the individual and to emphasize his rationality and responsibility. The result was the reduction of punishment both in quantity and in severity, the appearance of the prison system, and the first attempts to study the psychology of crime and to distinguish between classes of criminals with a view to their improvement (see criminology, crime, juvenile delinquency).

These latter problems are the province of criminal anthropology and criminal sociology, sciences so called because they view crime as the outcome of anthropological viz. social conditions. The law breaker is himself a product of social evolution and cannot be regarded as solely responsible for his disposition to transgress. Habitual crime is thus to be treated as a disease. Punishment can, therefore, be justified only insofar as it either protects society by removing temporarily or permanently one who has injured it, or acting as a deterrent, or aims at the moral regeneration of the criminal. Thus the retributive theory of punishment with its criterion of justice as an end in itself gives place to a theory which regards punishment solely as a means to an end, utilitarian or moral, according as the common advantage or the good of the criminal is sought.

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes in detail the evolution of punishment from hanging, drawing and quartering of medieval times to the modern systems of fines and prisons. He sees a trend in criminal punishment from vengeance by the King to a more practical, utilitarian concern for deterrence and rehabilitation.

A particularly harsh punishment is sometimes said to be draconian, after Draco, the lawgiver of the classical polis of Athens. But as the adjective Spartan still testifies, its wholly militarized rival Sparta was the harshest a state of law can be on its own citizens, e.g. crypteia (including flogging for being caught when stealing as ordered).

In operant conditioning, punishment is the presentation of a stimulus contingent on a response which results in a decrease in response strength (as evidenced by a decrease in the frequency of response). The effectiveness of punishment in suppressing the response depends on many factors, including the intensity of the stimulus and the consistency with which the stimulus is presented when the response occurs. In parenting, additional factors that increase the effectiveness of punishment include a verbal explanation of the reason for the punishment and a good relationship between the parent and the child. There are also parent/child relations that never acquire punishment, cause nothing wrong has been done.

Possible reasons for punishment

There are many possible reasons that might be given to justify or explain why someone ought to be punished; here follows a broad outline of typical, possibly contradictory, justifications.


Some punishment includes work to reform and rehabilitate the wrongdoer so that they will not commit the offence again. This is distinguished from deterrence, in that the goal here is to change the offender's attitude to what they have done, and make them come to see that their behavior was wrong.

Incapacitation / societal protection

Incapacitation is a justification of punishment that refers to when the offender’s ability to commit further offenses is removed. This is a forward-looking justification of punishment that views the future reductions in re-offending as sufficient justification for the punishment. This can occur in one of two ways; the offender’s ability to commit crime can be physically removed, or the offender can be geographically removed.

The offender’s ability to commit crime can be physically removed in several ways. This can include cutting the hands off a thief, as well as other crude punishments. The castration of offenders is another punishment that can be justified by incapacitation, furthered by recent media coverage in Britain of the proposed chemical castration of sexual offenders. Incapacitation, in this sense, can include any number of punishments including taking away the driving license of a dangerous driver but can also include capital punishment.

Despite this, incapacitation is predominately thought of as incarceration. Imprisonment has the effect of confining prisoners, physically preventing them from committing crimes against those outside, i.e. protecting the community. Before the widespread use of imprisonment, banishment was used as a form of incapacitation. Nowadays courts have a flexible array of sentence options available to them that can restrict offender’s movements, and subsequently their ability to commit crime. Football hooligans can, for example, be required to attend centres during football matches.

Selective incapacitation is a modified form of incapacitation that rationalises the practice of giving only dangerous and persistent offenders long, and in some case indefinite, prison sentences. The approach adopts a utilitarian viewpoint that regards the protection, and subsequent happiness, of the majority as justification of giving excessive and indefinite prison sentences. There is, however, strong moral opposition to this concept.

Deterrence / prevention

To act as a measure of prevention to those who are contemplating criminal activity. This deterrence is intended to prevent a re-offence by the offender by imposing a punishment that he/she wouldn't want to experience again. The aim is also to deter others in the community from committing the same or a similar offence by making an example of the offender. If this is the chief reason for punishment, the sentence may appear over-harsh when assessed against some of the other reasons.


For minor offences, punishment may take the form of the offender "righting the wrong"; for example, a vandal might be made to clean up the mess he/she has made.

In more serious cases, punishment in the form of fines and compensation payments may also be considered a sort of "restoration".

Some libertarians argue that full restoration or restitution on an individualistic basis is all that is ever just, and that this is compatible with both retributivism and a utilitarian degree of deterrence.[1]


Retribution is the practice of "getting even" with a wrongdoer — the suffering of the wrongdoer is seen as good in itself, even if it has no other benefits. One reason for modern centrally-organized societies to include this judicial element is to diminish the perceived need for "street justice", blood feud and vigilantism. However, some argue that this is a "zero-sum game", that such acts of street justice and blood revenge are not removed from society, but responsibility for carrying them out is merely transferred to the state.

Retribution sets an important standard on punishment — the transgressor must get what he deserves, but no more. Therefore, a thief put to death is not retribution; a murderer put to death is. Adam Smith, who is credited as the father of Capitalism, wrote extensively about punishment. In his view, an important reason for punishment is not only deterrence, but also satisfying the resentment of the victim. Moreover, in the case of the death penalty, the retribution goes to the dead victim, not his family. (So, to extend Smith's views, a murderer can be spared the death penalty only by the victim's express wish, made when he was alive.) One great difficulty of this approach is that of judging exactly what it is that the transgressor "deserves". For instance, it may be retribution to put a thief to death if he steals a family's only means of livelihood; conversely, mitigating circumstances may lead to the conclusion that the execution of a murderer is not retribution.


From German Criminal Law, Punishment can be explained by positive prevention theory to use criminal justice system to teach people what are the social norms for what is correct and acts as a reinforcement. It teaches people to obey the law and eliminates the free-rider principle of people not obeying the law getting away with it.

Denunciation / condemnation

Punishment can serve as a means for society to publicly express condemnation of a crime. This serves the dual function of curbing public anger away from vigilante justice, while concurrently stigmatizing the condemned in an effort to deter future criminal activity.[2] This is also known as the "Expressive Theory."[3] Punishment, viewed in this way, helps to give society a sense of moral uprightness, tending to confirm its moral right to have a justice system that exacts punishment on those who do not confirm to society's norms. Such a purpose can be readily accused of being hypocritical.

See also


  1. ^ Hugo, Adam Bedau (February 19, 2010). "Punishment, Crime and the State". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2010-08-04. "The search for a precise definition of punishment that exercised some philosophers (for discussion and references see Scheid 1980) is likely to prove futile: but we can say that legal punishment involves the imposition of something that is intended to be burdensome or painful, on a supposed offender for a supposed crime, by a person or body who claims the authority to do so." 
  2. ^ a b McAnany, Patrick D. (August 2010). "Punishment". Online. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-08-04. "Punishment describes the imposition by some authority of a deprivation — usually painful — on a person who has violated a law, rule, or other norm. When the violation is of the criminal law of society there is a formal process of accusation and proof followed by imposition of a sentence by a designated official, usually a judge. Informally, any organized group — most typically the family, in rearing children — may punish perceived wrongdoers." 
  3. ^ a b Hugo, Adam Bedau (February 19, 2010). "Theory of Punishment". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2010-08-04. "Punishment under law... is the authorized imposition of deprivations — of freedom or privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens — because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically (though not invariably) involving harm to the innocent. (The classical formulation, conspicuous in Hobbes, for example, defines punishment by reference to imposing pain rather than to deprivations.) This definition, although imperfect because of its brevity, does allow us to bring out several essential points." 
  4. ^ a b c Peters, Richard Stanley (1966). Ethics and Education. pp. 267–268. "Punishment... involves the intentional infliction of pain or of something unpleasant on someone who has committed a breach of rules... by someone who is in authority, who has a right to act in this way. Otherwise, it would be impossible to distinguish 'punishment' from 'revenge'. People in authority can, of course, inflict pain on people at whim. But this would be called 'spite' unless it were inflicted as a consequence of a breach of rules on the part of the sufferer. Similarly a person in authority might give a person £5 as a consequence of his breaking a rule. But unless this were regarded as painful or at least unpleasant for the recipient it could not be counted as a case of 'punishment'. In other words at least three criteria of (i) intentional infliction of pain (ii) by someone in authority (iii) on a person as a consequence of a breach of rules on his part, must be satisfied if we are to call something a case of 'punishment'. There are, as is usual in such cases, examples that can be produced which do not satisfy all criteria. For instance there is a colloquialism which is used about boxers taking a lot of punishment from their opponents, in which only the first condition is present. But this is a metaphorical use which is peripheral to the central use of the term.

    In so far as the different 'theories' of punishment are answers to questions about the meaning of 'punishment', only the retributive theory is a possible one. There is no conceptual connection between 'punishment' and notions like those of 'deterrence', 'prevention' and 'reform'. For people can be punished without being prevented from repeating the offence, and without being made any better. It is also a further question whether they themselves or anyone else is deterred from committing the offence by punishment. But 'punishment' must involve 'retribution', for 'retribution' implies doing something to someone in return for what he has done.... Punishment, therefore, must be retributive—by definition." 

  5. ^ Kleining, John (October 1972). "R.S. Peters on Punishment" (Review article). British Journal of Educational Studies 20 (03): 259–269. Retrieved 2010-08-09. "Unpleasantness inflicted without authority is revenge, and if whimsical, is spite.... There is no conceptual connection between punishment, or deterrence, or reform, for people can be punished without being prevented from repeating the offence, and without being made better. And it is also a further question whether they themselves, or anyone else is deterred from committing the offence by punishment.". 
  6. ^ McAnany, Patrick D. (August 2010). "Justification for punishment (Punishment)". Online. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-09-16. "Because punishment is both painful and guilt producing, its application calls for a justification. In Western culture, four basic justifications have been given: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The history of formal punitive systems is one of a gradual transition from familial and tribal authority to the authority of organized society. Although parents today retain much basic authority to discipline their children, physical beatings and other severe deprivations—once widely tolerated—may now be called child abuse and result in criminal charges" 
  7. ^ Diana Kendall (2009). Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials (7th revised ed.). Cengage Learning. ISBN 0495598623. 

General references

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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punishment (plural punishments)

  1. The act or process of punishing, imposing and/or applying a sanction.
  2. A penalty to punish wrongdoing, especially for crime.
  3. A suffering by pain or loss imposed as retribution
  4. (figuratively) Any treatment or experience so harsh it feels like being punished


Derived terms

Related terms


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.

Simple English

Punishment is when something is done to a person (or animal) that they do not like, because they broke a rule. There are many kinds of punishment, from a death penalty for very bad crimes (things that parents may do to punish children)

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