Is Kant a retributivist?

History of Political Thought 17 (1):60-78 (1996)
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Abstract
Retributivists are often thought to give 'deontological' theories of punishment, arguing that we should punish not for the beneficial consequences of doing so such as deterrence or incapacitation, but purely because justice demands it. Kant is often regarded as the paradigmatic retributivist. In some passages Kant does appear to give a deontological theory of punishment. For example, Kant insists that on an island where all the people were to leave the next day, forever dissolving and dispersing the community, the last murderer in jail would have to have his execution carried out before the diaspora--justice demands it. In other passages, however, Kant defends punishment by appealing to its beneficial consequences. For example, after supposing that one man on a life raft pushes the other off to save his own life, Kant says that the former man should not be legally punished "because that punishment would have to be death, and it would be an absurd law that threatened death to one who refuses to die voluntarily in a dangerous situation." In this passage Kant's reasoning is that state laws, by threatening us with sanctions, are intended to prevent us from violating rights--the point of these laws is to deter. A law that imposes a punishment that could not deter is an absurd law. I argue that while Kant rejects consequentialism in thinking about moral actions, he distinguishes law and morality, and in the sphere of law, an action we take is to be justified by appealing to the good it yields. The point of legal punishment is to deter violations of rights and protect us from a state of nature in which no one's freedom is assured. Kant's theory of legal (as opposed to moral) punishment is not deontological. Nevertheless we can characterize his consequentialist theory of legal punishment as retributive in some sense. The paper then considers how the passages about punishment in which Kant invokes consequentialist thinking can be reconciled with other passages where he insists on punishment regardless of the consequences.
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