Theories of Reward & Punishment: Retribution, Utilitarianism & Restitution

Theories of Reward & Punishment: Retribution, Utilitarianism & Restitution
Coming up next: The Morality of Deterrence: Forms, Limits & Acceptability

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  • 0:00 Reward & Punishment
  • 0:44 Retribution
  • 1:47 Utilitarian Justice
  • 2:54 Restorative Justice
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How a society handles justice and punishment is an important decision. In this lesson, you will explore three primary philosophies of justice, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Reward and Punishment

Here's a question for you: What should we do with criminals? Banish them to desert islands? Our society tends to lean more towards the idea of putting them in jail. But what is the point of prison? Is it just to get troublesome people out of the way? Or is it justice? In most societies, the idea of punishment is wrapped up in this idea of justice, as well as the desire to maintain control. So, here's the question: is punishment justice? And if so, what sort of punishment? Hmm. Better to just stay out of trouble.


The theories about punishment and justice can pretty much be categorized into three ideas. The first of these is retributive punishment. Here's the basic idea. People are punished because they deserve to be punished. Ta-da. That's it. Somebody broke the rules, so they should be punished. That's justice. Those who support this idea claim that people are capable of making good decisions, so breaking rules is a conscious decision. Supporters also claim that since the punishment is directly focused against the offense, people associate law-breaking with punishment and are less likely to commit crimes.

Not everyone agrees, however. People who oppose retributive justice claim that this system is just about getting revenge and not actually a matter of justice. They also claim that there is no real benefit to punishing people for the sake of punishment, and really, what good does that do?

Utilitarian Justice

Say you're not crazy about retributive justice. You like your criminal punishments to have more. . . purpose. Well, how about utilitarian justice, in which justice is defined by its overall benefit to society? In this system, we punish people not just because they broke the law but because it is somehow beneficial to all of us. For example, punishment discourages people from committing future crimes, so society is improved. In fact, deterrence is the main focus of utilitarian punishment, but punishment should also focus on rehabilitation, or correcting criminal behavior so that criminals may become productive members of society.

Now, of course, this theory of justice is also not beloved by all. Some people don't want to see criminals reintroduced into society. Some think that utilitarian justice is too idealistic, without enough practical punishment. So, we keep searching.

Restorative Justice

Alright, there's one last basic philosophy about justice. Restorative justice is the theory that crimes should be corrected by making amends to the victims. This theory still claims that punishment should have a purpose but focuses on individual victims more than all of society. So, for example, a criminal should return stolen money, apologize to victims, or make up for their crimes through community service. Those who favor this sort of justice believe that it creates open communication about crime and is the best way to make victims feel whole again.

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