The Concept of Punishment

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised date: September 15, 2003

One common philosophical method, known as ordinary language analysis, tries to pinpoint the meaning of a key word by asking how precisely the word is used in normal contexts. If one performs an ordinary language analysis on the word "punishment," one comes up with something like the following definition.

An act is punishment if and only if it meets the following conditions:

(1) hardship or unpleasantness;
(2) involving moral condemnation and denunciation
(3) inflicted on a person who is found guilty of an offense
(4) inflicted by someone entitled to do so (refers to legal institutions, e.g., courts, prisons, etc.)

Each of these is a necessary condition. Individually, they are not sufficient to establish an act or experience as punishment. A military enlistee might describe a long uphill hike carrying a full knapsack as "punishment," which would fit the first condition, but it would not be punishment in the strict sense. It would be punishment only in a metaphorical sense.

By "offense" we mean a violation of a particular law.

(3) contains an implicit reference to due process.

If we omit (3), then we break the link between punishment and the establishment of wrongdoing.

If we omit (3) and (2) then we would have to classify quarantining someone suspected of having a dangerous contagious disease as punishment. Some authors omit (2) and so fail to distinguish quarantine from a punishment.

Without (4), vigilante action might qualify as punishment. The novel Ox-Bow Incident describes a case in which an ad hoc group of citizens captures three men traveling with stolen cattle, briefly discusses their alleged guilt, decides that they are guilty, and then hangs them instead of bringing them back to town for a proper trial. The victims were in fact innocent of stealing the cattle, although they could not prove their innocence between the time of their apprehension and that of their execution. Such vigilante action, while similar to punishment in that it perhaps meets conditions (1)-(3), falls short of it by failing to meet condition (4).

Could we substitute for (3) "inflicted on an offender"? If we did, then we could not count as punishment cases where innocent people are accused, tried, and imprisoned or executed. A person could then never be mistakenly or erroneously punished.