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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Punishment Philosophies and Types of Sanctions


Punishments vary in their underlying philosophy and form. Major punishment philosophies include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and restoration. The form of punishment may be classified as either formal or informal in terms of the organization and legitimate authority of the sanctioning body. Sanctions also vary in their valence or direction. Positive sanctions for “good behavior” include various types of praise, awards, and rewards, whereas negative sanctions are associated with various types of punishments. Our focus on punishment dictates an emphasis on negative sanctions.

This chapter reviews these punishment philosophies and the types of punishment within a comparative historical context. Detailed comparisons of current practices across world regions and case studies in particular countries will be conducted in later chapters. Here, our focus is on the general philosophical orientations and justifications for punishment and their various forms.


Punishment serves numerous social-control functions, but it is usually justified on the principles of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and/or restoration. The specific principles that underlie these dominant philosophies for punishment are summarized below.


One of the oldest and most basic justifications for punishment involves the principles of revenge and retribution. This equation of punishment with the gravity of the offense is embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition in the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament that emphasize the idea of “an eye for an eye.” Neither constrained by questions of offender culpability nor directed at preventing future wrongdoing, offenders under a retributive philosophy simply get what they deserve.

Suggested readings
Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn. 1990. A History and Sociology of Genocide. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Michel Foucault. 1977. Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon
David Garland. 1990. Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Jack P. Gibbs. 1975. Crime, Punishment, and Deterrence. New York: Elsevier
Norval Morris and David J. Rothman. 1995. The Oxford History of the Prison. New York: Oxford University Press
Graeme Newman. 1978. The Punishment Response. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott
Geoff Simons. 1999. Imposing Economic Sanctions: Legal Remedy or Genocidal Tool? London: Pluto Press