Retributive justifications for punishment are based in the idea that the offender deserves to be punished, and should be punished, whether or not it has any benefits such as rehabilitation, deterrence, or social safety. The articles in this section challenge the legitimacy of retribution from a naturalistic perspective that highlights the causes of criminal wrong-doing, putting the offender in an historical and situational context. When we appreciate the fact that individuals are fully caused to become who they are and act as they do, retributive emotions are kept in check, and the idea that offenders should get their "just deserts" placed in doubt. This challenge to retribution should be reflected in the reform of our criminal justice system.

Articles in this Section

Related Content from Other Sections

  • Reactivity in Charge: On Fischer's Semiretributivism, Article
    A critique of John Martin Fischer's defense of retributivism, forthcoming in the Harvard Review of Philosophy, 2023
  • Criminal Justice As Social Justice: Review of Gregg Caruso's Rejecting Retributivism, Book Review


  • Responsibility in Question: Caruso and Dennett's Just Deserts, Book Review

    Freedom is perhaps the paramount value in the West, certainly in America, which was born in the quest for liberty. But how free are we? What matters most are political and economic freedoms – the wide permissible range of belief, speech, and action that characterize open societies. But people also care about perceived threats to their personal autonomy, to their being responsible originators of action who deserve credit for good deeds and – the obligatory downside – blame for bad.

  • Reforming Criminal Justice: The Case Against Free Will and Retribution, Talk

    A presentation by Robert Gulack and Tom Clark at Touro Law School.

  • Maximizing Liberty: Retribution, Responsibility, and the Mentor State, Article
    In a world in which all behavior is understood to be fully caused, what justifies retribution?
  • Against Retribution, Book Review

    Commentary on Michael Moore’s book Placing Blame: A General Theory of Criminal Law.

    Intuitively, naturalism undercuts retributive attitudes by showing that the causal story behind crime involves numerous factors outside the individual. Although Michael Moore is entirely naturalistic in his understanding of human behavior, he thinks any mitigation of retributive judgments is unwarranted: retribution is an intrinsic good, and we should discard our sympathies for disadvantaged offenders as "moral hallucinations."

    I make the case that such sympathies are not misplaced, but reflect the fact that our dispositions to punish and withhold punishment track causality itself. When we understand the external factors that shaped the offender, retributive rage diminishes in favor of a determination to address these factors. It is only by ignoring the functional, forward-looking nature of morality that Moore can portray retribution as an intrinsic good and the reigning moral principle of criminal justice. Since the natural purpose of morality, including the retributive impulse, is to shape behavior advantageously, we can and should consider other more efficient and less punitive means to achieve the ends that retribution originally served. This suggests the aims of criminal justice might change under pressure from a thorough-going naturalism.

    This review also appeared in the Human Nature Review, 2003 Volume 3: 466-479.