The Purpose of Punishment



“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... to secure these rights governments are instituted among men,” the Declaration of Independence tells us. How do governments secure rights? Governments prohibit interference with rights by law, and to make the legal prohibitions stick, governments threaten punishment to anyone who violates them. This is what the criminal law does. It prohibits taking life, liberty, or property (part, at least, of the pursuit of happiness as amendments V and XIV to the Constitution make clear) without due (legal) process and specifies the punishments threatened to those who break the law. When the law violation is very serious, the punishment may be death. The intended effect of all legal threats obviously is to deter from doing what the law prohibits, from committing the crimes threatened with punishment. And needless to say, the threatened punishments must be carried out—otherwise the threats are reduced to bluffs and become incredible and therefore ineffective. Thus, the primary purpose of legal punishment is to deter from crime.


Death Penalty Crime Rate Sick Person Credible Threat Life Term 
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© Ernest van den Haag and John P. Conrad 1983

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