Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 January 2009
The most widespread interpretation amongst contemporary theorists of Kant's theory of punishment is that it is retributivist. On the contrary, I will argue there are very different senses in which Kant discusses punishment. He endorses retribution for moral law transgressions and consequentialist considerations for positive law violations. When these standpoints are taken into consideration, Kant's theory of punishment is more coherent and unified than previously thought. This reading uncovers a new problem in Kant's theory of punishment. By assuming a potential offender's intentional disposition as Kant does without knowing it for certain, we further exacerbate the opportunity for misdiagnosis – although the assumption of individual criminal culpability may be all we can reasonably be expected to use. While this difficulty is not lost on Kant, it continues to remain with us today, making Kant's theory of punishment far more relevant than previously thought.
1 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Pluhar, W. S., Indianapolis, [1781/1787] 1996, p. 9 [A xiii]Google Scholar.
2 Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and trans. Gregor, M. J., Cambridge, 1991, p. 35 [4:425]Google Scholar. When citing all works by Kant except the Critique of Pure Reason, the first number will refer to the page in the edition cited. In the brackets, the first number refers to the volume number of the Prussian Academy of Sciences edition of Kant's works with the second number after the colon referring to the page number in this volume where the quotation is found. Unless stated otherwise, all uses of emphasis in citations are given.
3 Tunick, Mark, ‘Is Kant a Retributivist?’ History of Political Thought, xvii (1996), p. 60Google Scholar.
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6 An interesting exception is Williams who claims that Kantian punishments must be justified from two standpoints: (1) the moral law's retributivism and (2) an empiricoutilitarianism. Therefore, punishments ought to both fit crimes and deter potential offenders. (Williams, p. 106; see p. 101.) In addition to Williams, Fleischacker confuses these two standpoints (Fleischacker, p. 193).
7 See Murphy, Jeffrie G., ‘Does Kant Have a Theory of Punishment?’ Columbia Law Review, lxxxvii (1987)Google Scholar. At 509, Murphy says: ‘I am not even sure that Kant develops anything that deserves to be called a theory of punishment at all. I genuinely wonder if he has done much more than leave us with a random (and not entirely consistent) set of remarks’. Holtman attempts to reinvent Kant so she can ‘reject the law of retribution and other disturbing details, but embrace more basic aspects of the accounts of justice and punishment’. Nevertheless, she says that his theory is at best incomplete. (Holtman, 12, 16, 21; also see Arendt, Hannah, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, ed. Beiner, R., Chicago, 1982, pp. 7 f.Google Scholar; Brown, Stuart, ‘Has Kant a Philosophy of Law?’, Philosophical Review, lxxi (1962)Google Scholar; Fleischacker, p. 193; Saner, p. 2; and Slote, pp. 31–57.)
10 See Mariña, J., ‘Kant's Derivation of the Formula of the Categorical Imperative: How to Get it Right’, Kant-Studien, lxxxix (1998), pp. 167 fGoogle Scholar.
11 Kant says: ‘All I need for morality is that freedom does not contradict itself and hence can at least be thought; I do not need to have any further insight into it’ (Kant, , Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Pluhar, , p. 30 [B xxix]Google Scholar). See Hare, 11; Fichte, pp. 245 f. [282–3 § 20 Remark]; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Priedrich, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Wood, A. W. and trans. Nisbet, H. B., Cambridge,  1991, pp. 135–40Google Scholar [§§ 105–12, with Remarks and Additions]; see ibid., p. 43 [§ 9]; Kant, , Groundwork, p. 3Google Scholar; Robinson, Daniel N. and Harré, Rom, ‘The Demography of the Kingdom of Ends’, Philosophy, lxix (1994)Google Scholar; Schneewind, J. B., ‘Autonomy, Obligation, and Virtue: An Overview of Kant's Moral Philosophy’, Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Guyer, P., Cambridge, 1992Google Scholar; Steinberger, Peter J., ‘The Standard View of the Categorical Imperative’, Kant-Studien, xc (1999), pp. 91, 99Google Scholar; and Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge, 1985Google Scholar. Also see Allison, Henry E., Kant's Theory of Freedom, Cambridge, 1990, pp. 180–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ameriks, Karl, ‘The Hegelian Critique of Kantian Morality’, New Essays on Kant, ed. den Ouden, B. and Moen, M., New York, 1987Google Scholar; Baron, Marcia, Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology, Ithaca, 1995Google Scholar; Lo, P.-C., ‘A Critical Re-evaluation of the Alleged “Empty Formalism” of Kantian Ethics’, Ethics, xli (1981)Google Scholar; O'Neill, Onora, Acting on Principle, New York, 1975Google Scholar; Edwards, Jeffrey, ‘Egoism and Formalism in the Development of Kant's Moral Philosophy’, Kant-Studien, xci (2000)Google Scholar; and Onof, Christian J., ‘A Framework for the Derivation and Reconstruction of the Categorical Imperative’, Kant-Studien, lxxxix (1998)Google Scholar.
12 Often, this is solely attributed to Hegel. See Hegel, , Elements of the Philosophy of Right, pp. 49Google Scholar [§ 15 Addition], 113 [§ 81, Remark], 115 f. [§ 82, Addition], 124 f. [§ 99, Remark], 126 f. [§ 100, Remark], and 131 f. [§ 104]. See also ibid., pp. 117 f. [§ 86, Addition] and 104 [§ 73].
14 Kant's moral theory would not tolerate all universal maxims, such as ‘destroy human life whenever you please’, as the respect for persons must remain primary as a rule. This would contradict Hare's reading. However, Hare is quite correct to point that ‘[m]oral principles do not have to be as simple and general as Kant seems to have thought, and they can still be universal all the same’ (see Hare, , ‘Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian?’ pp. 7 f.Google Scholar).
15 See my ‘Corlett on Kant, Hegel, and Retribution’, p. 563.
16 ‘But to look upon all punishments and rewards as mere machinery in the hands of a higher power, serving only to put rational beings into activity toward their final purpose (happiness) is so patently a mechanism which does away with the freedom of the will that it need not detain us here’ (Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason, ed. and trans. Gregor, M. J., Cambridge,  1997, p. 35 [5:38]Google Scholar and Kant, , Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor, M. J., Cambridge, 1996, pp. 170 f.Google Scholar). See Kant's essay ‘The End of All Things’ in Kant, , Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, ed. Wood, A. and di Giovanni, G., Cambridge, 1998, p. 204 [8:338–9]Google Scholar.
18 Likewise, rule-utilitarians can justify punishments without being retributive.
21 Ibid. See Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, ed. Heath, P. and Schneewind, J. B., trans. Heath, P., Cambridge, 1997, pp. 310 f. [§ 49 27:555]CrossRefGoogle Scholar. (I am citing a passage from Johann Friedrich Vigilantius's notes from Kant's 1793–4 lecture course entitled ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’.) Eugen Dühring argued that the lex talionis satisfied too low a penal threshold, as to properly negate an offending will one must cause more harm to the criminal than he or she committed to make up the shortfall of his or her ‘lack of regard for others shown by that will in the crime’ (Small, 42). At times Kant seems to be somewhat sympathetic to this approach: ‘Every deed that violates a human being's right deserves punishment, the function of which is to avenge a crime on the one who committed it (not merely to make good the harm that was done)’ (Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 207 [6:460]Google Scholar).
25 Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason, p. 34 [5:37]Google Scholar and Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , pp. 79 [27:286], 304 [§ 38 27:547], 308 f. [§§ 43–4 27:552 f.], 312 [§ 50 27:556]Google Scholar. (From the Lectures, the first citation is from the section ‘Of Rewards and Punishments’ from Georg Ludwig Collins's 1784 notes. The following citations are Vigilantius's notes.)
26 There is an exception for crimes where the appropriate manner of punishing criminals is to levy fines. Moreover, wealthy criminals who will not be ‘hurt’ by the fine are to be publicly embarrassed, perhaps a form of psychological punishment. (Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 106 [6:332]Google Scholar.)
29 ‘No punishment should be coupled with cruelty’ Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , p. 311 [§ 49 27:556]Google Scholar.
31 Ibid., p. 55 and Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , p. 79 [27:286]Google Scholar in the section ‘Of Rewards and Punishments’. See the section entitled ‘Of the Lawgiver’ in ibid., p. 79 [27:286]. (Both are from the notes of G. L. Collins.) This statement mirrors Fichte's belief that the purpose of punishment is solely to deter. (See Fichte, pp. 226–48 [260–85 § 20].)
32 I know of only three treatments: Byrd, 196, 196n144; Scheid, 268–71; and Tunick, 63. Corlett takes this view only with regard to his own reinterpretation of a Kantian penal theory (Corlett, 78, 78n7).
35 Ibid., p. 96 [6:320]. He says further: ‘It is the formal execution of a monarch that strikes horror in a soul filled with the idea of human beings’ rights, a horror that one feels repeatedly as soon as and as often as one thinks of such scenes as the fate of Charles I or Louis XVI' (ibid., p. 97n [6:320]).
36 Ibid., pp. 97n–98n [6:320] (emphasis added). As ‘the people’ are implicated in a crime most, if any at all, did not participate in in any way, Kant sanctions yet again the violation of a universal maxim.
41 I take this phrase from Tunick, 65.
43 Kant, , Groundwork, p. 11 [4:397]Google Scholar. Fleischacker argues that in this example ‘Kant does not hold that the impossibility of deterring someone morally justifies not punishing him; on the contrary, he stresses the fact that deterrence concerns only the subjective (empirical), not the objective value of punishment’ (Fleischacker, 194). The problem with this view is that Fleischacker has misrepresented Kant's penology by not taking into consideration that punishment is itself an empirical practice – and, for Kant, governments can only administer deterrent punishments.
45 See Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 14, 17 [6:220, 224]Google Scholar. As positive laws may be irrational, Kant's argument against the right to sedition or rebellion against the state may be problematic (see ibid., pp. 96 f. [6:320]). In addition, human beings are only ends in themselves in morality, not in positive law (Kant, , Groundwork, p. 42 [4:435]Google Scholar). This is not to say that Kant's project of a kingdom of ends is complete fantasy, for one of the primary foundations of a kingdom of ends is its possible realization through human conduct (ibid., p. 44n [4:437]). Kant hints that there would be no need for punishment in the ideal society (Kant, , Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Smith, N. K., London, 1963Google Scholar, A317/B373; see Fleischacker, 191 and Fichte, 244 [§ 20 282V(f.)]).
54 See Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 17, 20 [6:219, 225] and 10, notedGoogle Scholar. The best treatment of Kant's theory of punishment is Tunick, 60–78, esp. 77 f. A fairly similar dichotomy is present in Hegel (see Hegel, , Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p. 121 [§ 94 Addition]Google Scholar). Also see Hare, 11 and Kant, , Groundwork, pp. 57 [4:452] and 61 [4:457]Google Scholar.
55 Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 109 [6:336–7]Google Scholar. See Wood, Allen W., Kant's Ethical Thought, Cambridge, 1999, p. 322CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘Kant holds that we have a moral obligation to limit ourselves to actions that are right [R], but that duty is no part of R itself. R grounds only juridical duties, which are distinguished from ethical duties by the fact that their concept contains no determinate incentive for complying with them’. Unfortunately, there is no discussion of the role(s) of moral and juridical duties regarding punishment. (Ibid., p. 407n32 and Wood, Allen W., ‘Kant's Practical Philosophy’, Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, ed. Ameriks, Karl, Cambridge, 2000Google Scholar.)
56 For example, Kant tells us that the legal system he is describing is that of ‘the state in idea, as it ought to be in accordance with pure principles of right’ (Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 90 [§ 45 6:313]Google Scholar).
57 Kant, , Kant: Philosophical Correspondence, 1756–99, ed. and trans. Zweig, A., Chicago, 1967, p. 199 [11:398–9]Google Scholar and Kant, , Correspondence, ed. and trans. Zweig, A., Cambridge, 1999, p. 448CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 24–7, 104–6 [6:231–4, 331 f.]Google Scholar. Fleischacker cites only the first half of this letter, which may have further contributed to his misinterpretation of it (Fleischacker, 204).
59 As he says in the letter to Erhard, the authorization of punishment is dependent upon retributive justification (esp. its concept of desert), subsumed under a primarily consequentialist theory of punishment.
60 Kant's use of ‘sovereign’ is a term easy to confuse. In the Groundwork, the ‘sovereign’ is each rational being in the kingdom of ends: ‘He belongs to it as sovereign when, as lawgiving, he is not subject to the will of any other’ (Kant, , Groundwork, p. 41 [4:433]Google Scholar). However, in Metaphysics of Morals, the sovereign is a single person who alone rules over his community (Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 95–8 [6:319–23]Google Scholar). I believe that ‘sovereign’ in the first sense is related to individual autonomy and in the second it is related to a particular individual (i.e. a monarch).
61 Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 109 [6:337]Google Scholar. See Becker, Don, ‘Kant's Moral and Political Philosophy’, Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. 6, The Age of German Idealism, ed. Solomon, R. C. and Higgins, K. M., London, 1993, p. 84Google Scholar. I believe that Jeffrie Murphy was mistaken in declaring that Kant held no such view, as Kant says: ‘conformity with juridical laws is the legality of an action and conformity with ethical laws is its morality’ (Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 14 [6:220] and 17 [6:225]Google Scholar; see Murphy, Jeffrie G., ‘Kant's Concept of A [sic] Right Action’, Kant Studies Today, ed. Beck, Lewis W., La Salle, 1969, pp. 471–95Google Scholar).
62 Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 107 [6:334]Google Scholar. To recall Kant's ‘blood guilt’ example, it would then seem to follow that the last murderer in prison might not be executed upon the dissolution of his island community if the community's preservation is no longer at issue: When its preservation may collapse, alternative penal remedies are justified to continue the community.
64 Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason, p. 44 [5:50]Google Scholar. See ibid., pp. 33, 74 [5:37, 86–7]; Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 42 f. [6:252–3]Google Scholar; Kant, , ‘On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory, But Is of No Practical Use’, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Moral Practice, ed. Humphrey, T., Indianapolis, 1983, p. 71Google Scholar.
65 See Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason, p. 54 [5:63]Google Scholar; Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , pp. 73 f. [27:279]Google Scholar (‘De Littera Legis’), 80 [27:287] (‘Of Rewards and Punishments’), 83 [27:291] (‘Of Degrees of Imputation’); and Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 16 [6:223 f.]Google Scholar. (All citations from Kant's Lectures are from the notes of G. L. Collins.) See also Kant's discussion of public right at Kant, , Metaphysics of Morals, p. 89 [6:311]Google Scholar; ‘On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns’, p. 165 . In Kant, , Ethical Philosophy, 2nd edn., ed. and trans. Ellington, J. W., Indianapolis, 1994Google Scholar: in the move ‘from a metaphysics of right (which abstracts from all empirical determinations) to a principle of politics (which applies these [metaphysical]concepts [of right] to instances provided by experience’ we ‘gain the solution of a problem of politics in accordance with the universal principle of right’. (Brackets supplied by Ellington.)
66 Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason, p. 34 [5:37]Google Scholar. In ‘Of Rewards and Punishments’, Kant says: ‘Punishment in general is the physical evil visited upon a person for moral evil’. (See Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , p. 79 [27:286]Google Scholar. See pp. 308 [§ 43 27:552] (‘In punishments, a physical evil is coupled to moral badness’), 309 [§ 44 27:553].)
74 See Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , p. 74 [27:280]Google Scholar in the section ‘De Littera Legis’.
75 I am referring to the common legal distinctions of actus reus and mens rea and their often critical importance in attributing punishments to criminals.
77 It should also be kept in mind that the calibration of juridical law towards encompassing moral law is not a project to be completed overnight. This process may well take generations. (See Kant, ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent’, Kant, , Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, Akademie p. 19Google Scholar.)
78 As Kant says, ‘Right [justice] must never be adapted to politics; rather, politics must always be adapted to right’ (Kant, , Ethical Philosophy, p. 166 Google Scholar). See Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , p. 306 [§40 27:550]Google Scholar. The fact that most interpretations of Kant's theory of punishment have not found such a gap previously ought then to be seen as one instance in which many were misled.
80 Kant, , Groundwork, p. 19 [4:407]Google Scholar. Due to our inability of knowing dispositions with any certainty, T. H. Green criticizes Kant for continuing to include intentionality in his theory of punishment. Green does what he believes Kant ought to have done: base his theory of punishment on more consequentialist grounds. (See Green, Thomas Hill, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, London,  1941, pp. 180–205Google Scholar [sections 176–206] and my ‘T. H. Green's Theory of Punishment’, History of Political Thought (forthcoming).)
81 Kant, , Groundwork, p. 62 [4:458–9]Google Scholar. Kant says: ‘We see this as soon as we become convinced that there is a use of pure reason which is practical and absolutely necessary (viz., its moral use). When used practically, pure reason inevitably expands and reaches beyond the bounds of sensibility’ (Kant, , Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Pluhar, , p. 27 [B xxv]Google Scholar; see Flikschuh, Katrin, Kant and Modern Political Philosophy, Cambridge, 2000, p. 194)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
83 Kant, , Groundwork, p. 20 [4:407]Google Scholar. Nevertheless, this state of affairs does not stop Kant from stating that: ‘the pure thought of duty and in general of the moral law, mixed with no foreign addition of empirical inducements, has by way of reason alone an influence on the human heart so much more powerful than all other incentives, which may be summoned from the empirical field’ (ibid., pp. 22 f. [4:410–11]).
85 See Fleischacker, 202. Fleischacker believes that the Kantian judge ‘appears to be a rather strange human being, and indeed it is not clear that he is, in his formal role, a human being at all’ (ibid., p. 203). Also see where Kant says: ‘Rewards and punishments are merely subjective motivating grounds; if objective grounds no longer avail, the subjective serve merely to replace the want of morality’ (Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Heath, , p. 80 [27:287]Google Scholar; see p. 284 [§ 24 27:522]; Kuehn, Manfred, Kant: A Biography, Cambridge, 2001, p. 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and George, p. 149n39).
86 This is not to say that Kant would find it desirable to punish innocent persons, for, in fact, the moral law prohibits this from happening. I would argue that the attempt to administer punishments only to guilty persons is one example of how consequentialist punishments are to be tempered by dictates of rational morality to the best degree possible (and for good reason). However, the inability to always (or mostly) positively identify one's moral disposition when breaching juridical laws plausibly opens the door wide to mistaking unintended consequences for criminal culpability. Thus, the Kantian believes the innocent man being punished is innocent, whereas the ‘naïve utilitarian’ knows the person to be punished is innocent and punishes him anyway. (See my ‘Gilligan on Deterrence and the Death Penalty: Has Legal Punishment Failed Us?’, Ethics and Justice, iii/iv (2001/2002)Google Scholar; my ‘Utilitarianism, Capital Punishment, and Innocent Persons: A Defense of Bentham’, Review Journal of Philosophy and Social Science, special issue, xxvii (2002)Google Scholar; and Rosen, Fred, ‘Utilitarianism and the Punishment of the Innocent: The Origins of a False Doctrine’, Utilitas, ix (1997)Google Scholar. On ‘naïve utilitarianism’, see my ‘Corlett on Kant, Hegel, and Retribution’, pp. 578–80.)
88 Thompson, Kevin, ‘Kant's Transcendental Deduction of Political Authority’, Kant-Studien, xcii (2001), 78Google Scholar.
89 Lindstedt, 133.
90 I am therefore at odds with Hare's assertion that Kant ‘was a sort of utilitarian, namely a rational-will utilitarian’, although I am generally sympathetic with Hare's analysis (Hare, 4).
91 Presented at the Fourth European Congress for Analytic Philosophy at Lund University, the Scottish Postgraduate Philosophy Association at Stirling University, and the senior postgraduate seminar at the University of Sheffield. I am most grateful to Gustav Arrhenius, Albert Atkin, Jes Bjarup, Meagan Brooks, Andy Clark, Martin Golding, Gerry Hough, David Liggins, Brian O'Connor, and, especially, Fabian Freyenhagen, Bob Stern, and Leif Wenar for very helpful comments on earlier drafts.