Punishment, commonly, is the imposition of an undesirable or
outcome upon a group or individual, meted out by an
authority In the fields of sociology Sociology is the study of society, human social behaviour, patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture that surrounds everyday life. It is a social science that uses various methods of Empiric ...

—in contexts ranging from
child discipline Child discipline is the methods used to prevent future behavioral problems in children. The word discipline is defined as imparting knowledge and skill, in other words, to teach. In its most general sense, discipline refers to systematic instructio ...
criminal law Criminal law is the body of law Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environ ...
—as a response and deterrent to a particular action or
behavior Behavior (American English) or behaviour (British English; American and British English spelling differences#-our, -or, see spelling differences) is the Action (philosophy), actions and mannerisms made by individuals, organisms, systems or Arti ...
that is deemed undesirable or unacceptable. It is, however, possible to distinguish between various different understandings of what punishment is. The reasoning for punishment may be to condition a child to avoid self-endangerment, to impose social
conformity Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group A group is a number A number is a mathematical object used to counting, count, measurement, measure, and nominal number, label. The original examples are the natural ...

(in particular, in the contexts of
compulsory education Compulsory education refers to a period of education that is required of all people and is imposed by the government. This education may take place at a registered school or Homeschooling, at other places. Compulsory school attendance or compulso ...
military discipline Military justice (or military law) is the body of laws and procedures governing members of the armed forces. Many nation-states have separate and distinct bodies of law that govern the conduct of members of their armed forces. Some states u ...
), to defend
norms Norm, the Norm or NORM may refer to: In academic disciplines * Norm (geology), an estimate of the idealised mineral content of a rock * Norm (philosophy), a standard in normative ethics that is prescriptive rather than a descriptive or explanato ...
, to protect against future harms (in particular, those from
violent crime A violent crime, violent felony, crime of violence or crime of a violent nature is a crime In ordinary language, a crime is an unlawful act punishable by a state or other authority. The term ''crime'' does not, in modern criminal law, hav ...
), and to maintain the
law Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is described by its boundari ...
—and respect for
rule of law The rule of law is defined in the ''Oxford English Dictionary The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' (''OED'') is the principal historical dictionary of the English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language ...

rule of law
—under which the social group is governed. and violates the law or rules by which the group is governed. Punishment may be self-inflicted as with
self-flagellation Self-flagellation is the disciplinary and devotional practice of flogging oneself with whips or other instruments that inflict pain. In Christianity Christianity is an Abrahamic religions, Abrahamic Monotheism, monotheistic religion based ...
and mortification of the flesh in the religious setting, but is most often a form of social coercion. The unpleasant imposition may include a Fine (penalty), fine, Sanctions (law), penalty, or Imprisonment, confinement, or be the removal or denial of something pleasant or desirable. The individual may be a person, or even an animal. The authority may be either a group or a single person, and punishment may be carried out formally under a system of
law Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is described by its boundari ...
or informally in other kinds of social settings such as within a family. Negative consequences that are not authorized or that are administered without a breach of rules are not considered to be punishment as defined here. The study and practice of the punishment of crimes, particularly as it applies to imprisonment, is called penology, or, often in modern texts, corrections; in this context, the punishment process is euphemistically called "correctional process". Research into punishment often includes similar research into prevention. Justifications for punishment include Retributive justice, retribution, Deterrence (legal), deterrence, Rehabilitation (penology), rehabilitation, and incapacitation (penology), incapacitation. The last could include such measures as isolation, in order to prevent the wrongdoer's having contact with potential victims, or the removal of a hand in order to make theft more difficult. If only some of the conditions included in the definition of punishment are present, descriptions other than "punishment" may be considered more accurate. Inflicting something negative, or unpleasant, on a person or animal, without authority is considered revenge or Spite (sentiment), spite rather than punishment. In addition, the word "punishment" is used as a metaphor, as when a boxer experiences "''punishment''" during a fight. In other situations, breaking a rule may be rewarded, and so receiving such a reward naturally does not constitute punishment. Finally the condition of breaking (or breaching) the rules must be satisfied for consequences to be considered punishment. Punishments differ in their degree of severity, and may include sanctions (law), sanctions such as reprimands, deprivations of privileges or liberty, fines, incarcerations, ostracism, the infliction of pain, amputation and the death penalty. ''Corporal punishment'' refers to punishments in which physical pain is intended to be inflicted upon the transgressor. Punishments may be judged as fair or unfair in terms of their degree of Norm of reciprocity, reciprocity and proportionality (law), proportionality to the offense. Punishment can be an integral part of socialization, and punishing unwanted behavior is often part of a system of pedagogy or behavioral modification which also includes rewards.


There are a large number of different understandings of what punishment is. Punishment is when something is done to a person (or animal) that they do not like. It may be because they broke a rule. There are many kinds of punishment, from a death penalty for horrible crimes, to things that parents may do to punish children, like spanking them or taking away their toys. People are often sent to prison as punishment for a crime. Punishment can be seen as good in society to prevent people from doing bad things. It can also seen as cruel and unnecessary. It can also be seen to do more harm than good. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punishment

In philosophy

Various philosophers have presented definitions of punishment. Conditions commonly considered necessary properly to describe an action as punishment are that # it is imposed by an authority (single or multiple), # it involves some loss to the supposed offender, # it is in response to an offense and # the human (or other animal) to whom the loss is imposed should be deemed at least somewhat responsible for the offense.

In psychology

Introduced by B.F. Skinner, punishment has a more restrictive and technical definition. Along with reinforcement it belongs under the operant conditioning category. Operant conditioning refers to learning with either punishment (often confused as negative reinforcement) or a reward that serves as a positive reinforcement of the lesson to be learned. In psychology, punishment is the reduction of a behavior via application of an unpleasant stimulus ("''positive'' punishment") or removal of a pleasant stimulus ("''negative'' punishment"). Extra chores or spanking are examples of positive punishment, while removing an offending student's recess or play privileges are examples of negative punishment. The definition requires that punishment is only determined after the fact by the reduction in behavior; if the offending behavior of the subject does not decrease, it is not considered punishment. There is some conflation of punishment and aversives, though an aversion that does not decrease behavior is not considered punishment in psychology. Additionally, "aversive stimulus" is a label behaviorists generally apply to negative reinforcers (as in avoidance learning), rather than punishers.

In socio-biology

Punishment is sometimes called ''revenge, retaliatory'' or ''moralistic aggression''; it has been observed in all species of social animals, leading evolutionary biologists to conclude that it is an evolutionarily stable strategy, selected because it favors cooperation, cooperative behavior.

Examples against sociobiological use

One criticism of the claim of all social animals being evolutionarily hardwired for punishment comes from studies of animals, such as the octopuses near Capri, Italy that suddenly formed communal cultures from having, until then lived solitary lives. During a period of heavy fishing and tourism that encroached on their territory, they started to live in groups, learning from each other, especially hunting techniques. Small, younger octopuses could be near the fully grown octopuses without being eaten by them, even though they, like other ''Octopus vulgaris'', were cannibalism, cannibals until just before the group formation. The authors stress that this behavior change happened too fast to be a genetic characteristic in the octopuses, and that there were certainly no mammals or other "naturally" social animals punishing octopuses for cannibalism involved. The authors also note that the octopuses adopted observational learning without any evolutionary history of specialized adaptation for it. There are also arguments against the notion of punishment requiring intelligence, based on studies of punishment in very small-brained animals such as insects. There is proof of honey bee workers with mutations that makes them fertile laying eggs only when other honey bees are not observing them, and that the few that are caught in the act are killed. This is corroborated by computer simulations proving that a few simple reactions well within mainstream views of the extremely limited intelligence of insects are sufficient to emulate the "political" behavior observed in great apes. The authors argue that this falsifiability, falsifies the claim that punishment evolved as a strategy to deal with individuals capable of knowing what they are doing. In the case of more complex brains, the notion of evolution selecting for specific punishment of intentionally chosen breaches of rules and/or wrongdoers capable of intentional choices (for example, punishing humans for murder while not punishing lethal viruses) is subject to criticism from coevolution issues. That punishment of individuals with certain characteristics (including but, in principle, not restricted to mental abilities) selects against those characteristics, making evolution of any mental abilities considered to be the basis for penal responsibility impossible in populations subject to such selective punishment. Certain scientists argue that this disproves the notion of humans having a biological feeling of intentional transgressions deserving to be punished.

Scope of application

Punishments are applied for various purposes, most generally, to encourage and enforce proper behavior as defined by society or family. Criminals are punished judicially, by Fine (penalty), fines, corporal punishment or custodial sentences such as prison; detainees risk further punishments for breaches of internal rules. Children, pupils and other trainees may be punished by their educators or instructors (mainly parents, legal guardian, guardians, or teachers, tutors and coach (sport), coaches) – see Child discipline. Slaves, domestic and other servants are subject to punishment by their Slave master, masters. Employees can still be subject to a contractual form of fine or demotion. Most hierarchical organizations, such as military and police forces, or even Church_discipline, churches, still apply quite rigid internal discipline, even with a judicial system of their own (court martial, canonical courts). Punishment may also be applied on moral, especially religious, grounds, as in penance (which is voluntary) or imposed in a theocracy with a religious police (as in a strict Islamic state like Iran or under the Taliban) or (though not a true theocracy) by Inquisition.

Hell as punishment

Belief that an individual's ultimate punishment is being sent by God, the highest authority, to an existence in Hell, a place believed to exist in the after-life, typically corresponds to sins committed during their life. Sometimes these distinctions are specific, with Damnation#Christianity, damned souls suffering for each sin committed (see for example Plato's myth of Er or Dante's ''Divine Comedy, The Divine Comedy''), but sometimes they are general, with condemned sinners relegated to one or more chamber of Hell or to a level of suffering. In many religious cultures, including Christianity and Islam, Hell is traditionally depicted as fiery and painful, inflicting guilt and suffering. Despite these common depictions of Hell as a place of fire, some other traditions portray Hell as cold. Buddhist – and particularly Tibetan Buddhist – descriptions of hell feature an equal number of hot and cold hells. Among Christian descriptions Dante Alighieri, Dante's ''Inferno (Dante), Inferno'' portrays the innermost (9th) circle of Hell as a frozen lake of blood and guilt. But cold also played a part in earlier Christian depictions of hell, beginning with the Apocalypse of Paul, originally from the early third century; the "Vision of Dryhthelm" by the Venerable Bede from the seventh century; "St Patrick's Purgatory", "The Vision of Tundale" or "Visio Tnugdali", and the "Vision of the Monk of Enysham", all from the twelfth century; and the "Vision of Thurkill" from the early thirteenth century.

History and rationale

Seriousness of a crime; Punishment fits the crime

A principle often mentioned with respect to the degree of punishment to be meted out is that the punishment should match the crime. One standard for measurement is the degree to which a crime affects others or society. Measurements of the degree of seriousness of a crime have been developed. A felony is generally considered to be a crime of "high seriousness", while a misdemeanor is not.

Possible reasons for punishment

There are many possible reasons that might be given to justify or explain why someone ought to be punished; here follows a broad outline of typical, possibly conflicting, justifications.

Deterrence (prevention)

Two reasons given to justify punishment is that it is a measure to prevent people from committing an offence - deterring previous offenders from re-offending, and preventing those who may be contemplating an offence they have not committed from actually committing it. This punishment is intended to be sufficient that people would choose not to commit the crime rather than experience the punishment. The aim is to deter everyone in the community from committing offences. Some criminologists state that the number of people convicted for crime does not decrease as a result of more severe punishment and conclude that deterrence is ineffective. Other criminologists object to said conclusion, citing that while most people do not know the exact severity of punishment such as whether the sentence for murder is 40 years or life, most people still know the rough outlines such as the punishments for armed robbery or forcible rape being more severe than the punishments for driving too fast or misparking a car. These criminologists therefore argue that lack of deterring effect of increasing the sentences for already severely punished crimes say nothing about the significance of the existence of punishment as a deterring factor. Some criminologists argue that increasing the sentences for crimes can cause criminal investigators to give higher priority to said crimes so that a higher percentage of those committing them are convicted for them, causing statistics to give a false appearance of such crimes increasing. These criminologists argue that the use of statistics to gauge the efficiency of crime fighting methods are a danger of creating a reward hack that makes the least efficient criminal justice systems appear to be best at fighting crime, and that the appearance of deterrence being ineffective may be an example of this.


Some punishment includes work to reform and Rehabilitation (penology), rehabilitate the culprit so that they will not commit the offence again. This is distinguished from deterrence, in that the goal here is to change the offender's attitude to what they have done, and make them come to see that their behavior was wrong.

Incapacitation and societal protection

Incapacitation as a justification of punishment refers to the offender's ability to commit further offences being removed. Imprisonment separates offenders from the community, for example, Australia was a dumping ground for early British criminals. This was their way of removing or reducing the offenders ability to carry out certain crimes. The death penalty does this in a permanent (and irrevocable) way. In some societies, people who stole have been punished by having their hands amputated.


Criminal activities typically give a benefit to the offender and a loss to the victim. Punishment has been justified as a measure of retributive justice, in which the goal is to try to rebalance any unjust advantage gained by ensuring that the offender also suffers a loss. Sometimes viewed as a way of "getting even" with a wrongdoer—the suffering of the wrongdoer is seen as a desired goal in itself, even if it has no restorative benefits for the victim. One reason society, societies have administered punishments is to diminish the perceived need for retaliatory "street justice", blood feud, and vigilante, vigilantism.


For minor offenses, punishment may take the form of the offender "righting the wrong", or making restitution to the victim. Community service or compensation orders are examples of this sort of penalty. In models of restorative justice, victims take an ''active'' role in a process with their offenders who are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, "to repair the harm they've done – by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service." The restorative justice approach aims to help the offender want to avoid future offences.

Education and denunciation

Punishment can be explained by positive prevention theory to use the criminal justice system to teach people what are the social norms for what is correct, and acts as a reinforcement. Punishment can serve as a means for society to publicly express denunciation of an action as being criminal. Besides educating people regarding what is not acceptable behavior, it serves the dual function of preventing vigilante justice by acknowledging public anger, while concurrently deterring future criminal activity by stigmatizing the offender. This is sometimes called the "Expressive Theory" of denunciation. The pillory was a method for carrying out public denunciation. Some critics of the education and denunciation model cite evolutionary problems with the notion that a feeling for punishment as a social signal system evolved if punishment was not effective. The critics argue that some individuals spending time and energy and taking risks in punishing others, and the possible loss of the punished group members, would have been selected against if punishment served no function other than signals that could evolve to work by less risky means.

Unified theory

A unified theory of punishment brings together multiple penal purposes—such as retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation—in a single, coherent framework. Instead of punishment requiring we choose between them, unified theorists argue that they work together as part of some wider goal such as the protection of rights.


Some people think that punishment as a whole is unhelpful and even harmful to the people that it is used against. Detractors argue that punishment is simply wrong, of the same design as "two wrongs make a right". Critics argue that punishment is simply revenge. Professor Deirdre Golash, author of ''The Case against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law'', says: {{quote, We ought not to impose such harm on anyone unless we have a very good reason for doing so. This remark may seem trivially true, but the history of humankind is littered with examples of the deliberate infliction of harm by well-intentioned persons in the vain pursuit of ends which that harm did not further, or in the successful pursuit of questionable ends. These benefactors of humanity sacrificed their fellows to appease mythical gods and tortured them to save their souls from a mythical hell, broke and bound the feet of children to promote their eventual marriageability, beat slow schoolchildren to promote learning and respect for teachers, subjected the sick to leeches to rid them of excess blood, and put suspects to the rack and the thumbscrew in the service of truth. They schooled themselves to feel no pity—to renounce human compassion in the service of a higher end. The deliberate doing of harm in the mistaken belief that it promotes some greater good is the essence of tragedy. We would do well to ask whether the goods we seek in harming offenders are worthwhile, and whether the means we choose will indeed secure them.{{Cite web , url=https://www.questia.com/read/117883311/the-case-against-punishment-retribution-crime-prevention , title = The Case against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law - 2004, Page III by Deirdre Golash. {{dl, date=July 2021 Golash also writes about imprisonment: {{quote, Imprisonment means, at minimum, the loss of liberty and autonomy, as well as many material comforts, personal security, and access to heterosexual relations. These deprivations, according to Gresham Sykes (who first identified them) “together dealt 'a profound hurt' that went to 'the very foundations of the prisoner's being. But these are only the minimum harms, suffered by the least vulnerable inmates in the best-run prisons. Most prisons are run badly, and in some, conditions are more squalid than in the worst of slums. In the District of Columbia jail, for example, inmates must wash their clothes and sheets in cell toilets because the laundry machines are broken. Vermin and insects infest the building, in which air vents are clogged with decades' accumulation of dust and grime. But even inmates in prisons where conditions are sanitary must still face the numbing boredom and emptiness of prison life—a vast desert of wasted days in which little in the way of meaningful activity is possible.

Destructiveness to thinking and betterment

There are critics of punishment who argue that punishment aimed at intentional actions forces people to suppress their ability to act on intent. Advocates of this viewpoint argue that such suppression of intention causes the harmful behaviors to remain, making punishment counterproductive. These people suggest that the ability to make intentional choices should instead be treasured as a source of possibilities of betterment, citing that complex cognition would have been an evolutionarily useless waste of energy if it led to justifications of fixed actions and no change as simple inability to understand arguments would have been the most thrifty protection from being misled by them if arguments were for social manipulation, and reject condemnation of people who intentionally did bad things. Punishment can be effective in stopping undesirable employee behaviors such as tardiness, absenteeism or substandard work performance. However, punishment does not necessarily cause an employee to demonstrate a desirable behavior.{{Cite web, url=https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/stories/1996/11/18/focus3.html, title=Punishment in the workplace creates undesirable side effects, last=Milbourn Jr, first=Gene, date=November 1996, access-date=November 21, 2018

See also

{{columns-list, colwidth=30em, * Capital punishment ** Capital and corporal punishment in Judaism ** List of capital crimes in the Torah ** List of methods of capital punishment ** List of people burned as heretics ** List of people executed for witchcraft ** Religion and capital punishment * Coercion * Corporal punishment * Devaluation (psychology), Devaluation * Discipline (BDSM) * Hudud * Intimidation * ''Nulla poena sine lege'' * Preventive state * Suffering * Telishment




* {{cite EB1911 , wstitle=Punishment , volume=22 , page=653 , short=1
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Punishment

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Legal Punishment

Etymology Online
* {{cite book , author=Brooks, Thom , title=Punishment , publisher=Routledge , location=New York , year=2012 , isbn=978-0-415-85051-3 * {{cite journal , last1 = Gade , first1 = Christian , year = 2020 , title = Is restorative justice punishment? , journal = Conflict Resolution Quarterly , volume = 38 , issue = 3 , pages = 127–155 , doi = 10.1002/crq.21293 , doi-access = free * {{cite book , author=Zaibert, Leo , title=Punishment and retribution , publisher=Ashgate , location=Hants, England , year=2006 , isbn=978-0-7546-2389-2 * {{cite journal , last1 = Lippke , first1 = Richard , year = 2001 , title = Criminal Offenders and Right Forfeiture , journal = Journal of Social Philosophy , volume = 32 , issue = 1, pages = 78–89 , doi = 10.1111/0047-2786.00080

External links

{{wikiquote {{Wiktionary * {{cite IEP , url-id=punishme , title=Punishment * {{cite IEP , url-id=m-p-puni , title=The Moral Permissibility of Punishment {{Authority control Punishment, Punishments, Social philosophy Criminal justice