Virtue Ethics and Criminal Punishment

In Jon Webber & Alberto Masala (eds.), From Personality to Virtue. Oxford University Press (2016)
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Abstract
In this chapter I use virtue theory to critique certain contemporary punishment practices. From the perspective of virtue theory, respect for rational agency indicates a respect for choice-making as the process by which we form dispositions which in turn give rise to further choices and action. To be a moral agent one must be able to act such that his or her actions deserve praise or blame; virtue theory thus demands that moral agents engage in rational choice-making as a means to develop and exercise the character traits from which culpable action issues. With respect to criminal offenders, virtue theory indicates the state is obligated to recognize offenders’ right to form their own moral character via rational choice-making, even while under state supervision. I will argue below that punishment practices should limit choice-making only to the extent necessary to achieve the functions of punishment : whenever possible, punishment should preserve opportunities for the rational exercise of character and development of virtue. This means that even within a prison setting incarcerated offenders should be able to make some choices about their daily lives. Offenders should also be offered opportunities to develop virtuous traits through rehabilitative programming such as drug addiction treatment, educational programming, and job training. I will also argue that two contemporary punishment practices unjustly undermine an offender’s moral agency. The first is the overuse of isolation sanctions, which very severely limits offender choice-making. The second is chemical castration, which results in limiting an offender’s capacity to develop his character within a specific realm of choice-making. I conclude that these two punishments violate offenders’ moral agency, and that this violation cannot be justified by appeal to the aims of incapacitation, deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation.
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