The Retributivist’s Case against Capital Punishment



Imagine a society without rewards or punishments. Neither merit nor effort will be recognized. Honors will not go to the worthy. Emoluments will not be increased to encourage those who give more unstintingly or more wisely than others for the good of the community. Advance in an occupation will not depend on excellence or even on faithful service. Whatever a good citizen might deserve he will not get. If solidarity can be maintained at all, it will depend on general altruism and enlightened self-interest. There will be a sort of egalitarian quality of life, but it will be an egalitarianism without reason for hope. Better things to come cannot be expected by any member of this strange society.


Criminal Justice Capital Punishment Criminal Justice System Crime Rate Moral Agent 
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  1. 1.
    Thomas Jefferson, “Autobiography,” in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden, ( New York: Modern Library, 1944 ), p. 46.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian ( Boston: Little, Brown, 1948 ), p. 270.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., p. 271.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., pp. 271–272.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., p. 269.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Jefferson, pp. 47–48.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For a further statement of my views on the “rehabilitative ideal,” see John P. Conrad, “A Lost Ideal, A New Hope: The Way Toward Effective Correctional Treatment,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (Winter 1981), pp. 1699–1734.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Quoted in Sir Leslie Stephen, The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Bart., KCS.I., A Judge of the High Court of Justice (London: Smith, Elder, 1895), p. 318. Far from a devotional family memorial, this is a distinguished biography by Sir James’s at least equally remarkable brother, the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and many historical and philosophical essays. I am not sure what significance to attach to the fact that Sir Leslie was the father of Virginia Woolf; it is hard to imagine anyone in sharper intellectual contrast to Sir James than this sensitive niece.Google Scholar

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© Ernest van den Haag and John P. Conrad 1983

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