Amongst contemporary theorists, the most widespread interpretation of Hegel's theory of punishment is that it is a retributivist theory of annulment, where punishments cancel the performance of crimes. The theory is retributivist insofar as the criminal punished must be demonstrated to be deserving of a punishment that is commensurable in value only to the nature of his crime, rather than to any consequentialist considerations. As Antony Duff says:
[retributivism] justifies punishment in terms not of its contingently beneficial effects but of its intrinsic justice as a response to crime; the justificatory relationship holds between present punishment and past crime, not between present punishment and future effects.
Punishment is given only to persons responsible for committing crime. In addition, the degree of punishment is set in proportion to the relative badness of the precipitating crime. Thus, retributivism can be understood as an individualistic theory because the only relevant factors pertain solely to the individual criminal himself.
The general attraction of Hegel's version of retributivism is that the punishments his theory is thought to endorse are commensurable in value with precipitating crimes, in contrast to the strict equivalence required by Kant's theory of punishment. As a result, Hegel's theory is praised both for being more acceptable to modern readers than Kant's so-called ‘pure retributivism’, as well as for being an ‘emphatically anti-utilitarian’ theory. Despite widespread agreement on these general features, it is hotly contested how exactly we are to understand the way in which punishment cancels crimes, and Hegel's difficult style has only served to make the controversy deeper. For example, Ted Honderich says: ‘A punishment is an annulment, a cancellation or a return to a previous state of affairs … All this, of course, is obscure. It is by Hegel’.