The retribution heuristic

Authored by: Stephen Koppel , Mark R. Fondacaro

The Routledge Handbook of Criminal Justice Ethics

Print publication date:  July  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415708654
eBook ISBN: 9781315885933
Adobe ISBN: 9781134619450


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Among the four generally accepted justifications of punishment—retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and deterrence—retribution is aberrant in that it rejects consequential reasoning. Although there are various conceptions of retribution, 3 each holds that wrongdoing should be punished proportionately, regardless of practical consequences. “Do justice though the heavens may fall,” as a proponent of retributivism would have it. Despite efforts to root criminal justice policy in empiricism, this peculiar feature of retribution has been left largely unchallenged. This is surprising since retribution’s indifference to consequences makes it unfit for empirical scrutiny, for without concern for consequences, measuring the effectiveness of retributive punishment is not possible. For some perspective on how unusual this is in the realm of policy-making, consider your reaction to the following proposals: a health care intervention wholly unconcerned with medical outcomes; a fiscal plan with no tangible economic indicators of success; a military intervention whose purpose is not to improve national security but to give another country what it deserves, no matter the result. But perhaps retribution’s abiding relevancy is due to the fact that retributive urges—the rush of emotion a person feels when he or she has been wronged—are so familiar to us all. That these emotions are universal, however, also points to the possibility that retribution is more concerned with consequences than it at first seems.

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