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Punishment is the practice of imposing something unpleasant or aversive on a person or animal in response to an unwanted, disobedient or morally wrong behavior. This is often done in the hope that it will facilitate learning.


The word is the abstract substantivation of the verb to punish, which is recorded in English since 1340, deriving from Old French puniss-, an extended form of the stem of punir "to punish," from Latin punire "inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense," earlier poenire, from poena "penalty, punishment".

Colloquial use of to punish for "to inflict heavy damage or loss" is first recorded in 1801, originally in boxing; for punishing as "hard-hitting" is from 1811.


In common usage, the word "punishment" might be described as "an authorized imposition of deprivations — of freedom or privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens — because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically (though not invariably) involving harm to the innocent." (according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The most common applications are in legal and similarly 'regulated' contexts, being the infliction of some kind of pain or loss upon a person for a misdeed, i.e. for transgressing a law or command (including prohibitions) given by some authority (such as an educator, employer or supervisor, public or private official).

In psychology[]

Main article: Punishment (psychology)

In the field of psychology punishment has a more restrictive and technical definition. In this field, punishment is the reduction of a behavior via a stimulus which is applied ("positive punishment") or removed ("negative punishment"). Making an offending student lose recess or play privileges are examples of negative punishment, while extra chores or spanking are examples of positive 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 then it is not considered punishment. There is some conflation of punishment and aversives, though an aversive that does not decrease behavior is not considered punishment.

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 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, guardians, or teachers, tutors and coaches).

Slaves, domestic and other servants used to be punishable by their 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 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.

History and rationale[]

The progress of civilization has resulted in a vast change alike in the theory and in the method of punishment. In primitive society punishment was left to the individuals wronged or their families, and was vindictive or retributive: in quantity and quality it would bear no special relation to the character or gravity of the offence.

Gradually there would arise the idea of proportionate punishment, of which the characteristic type is an eye for an eye. The second stage was punishment by individuals under the control of the state, or community; in the third stage, with the growth of law, the state took over the primitive function and provided itself with the machinery of justice for the maintenance of public order. Henceforward crimes are against the state, and the exaction of punishment by the wronged individual is illegal (compare Lynch Law). Even at this stage the vindictive or retributive character of punishment remains, but gradually, and specially after the humanist movement under thinkers like Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, new theories begin to emerge. Two chief trains of thought have combined in the condemnation of primitive theory and practice. On the one hand the retributive principle itself has been very largely superseded by the protective and the reformative; on the other punishments involving bodily pain have become objectionable to the general sense of society. Consequently corporal and even capital punishment occupy a far less prominent position, and tend everywhere to disappear. It began to be recognized also that stereotyped punishments, such as belong to penal codes, fail to take due account of the particular condition of an offence and the character and circumstances of the offender. A fixed fine, for example, operates very unequally on rich and poor.

Modern theories date from the 18th century, when the humanitarian movement began to teach the dignity of the individual and to emphasize his rationality and responsibility. The result was the reduction of punishment both in quantity and in severity, the improvement of the prison system, and the first attempts to study the psychology of crime and to distinguish between classes of criminals with a view to their improvement (see criminology, crime, juvenile delinquency).

These latter problems are the province of criminal anthropology and criminal sociology, sciences so called because they view crime as the outcome of anthropological viz. social conditions. The law breaker is himself a product of social evolution and cannot be regarded as solely responsible for his disposition to transgress. Habitual crime is thus to be treated as a disease. Punishment can, therefore, be justified only insofar as it either protects society by removing temporarily or permanently one who has injured it, or acting as a deterrent, or aims at the moral regeneration of the criminal. Thus the retributive theory of punishment with its criterion of justice as an end in itself gives place to a theory which regards punishment solely as a means to an end, utilitarian or moral, according as the common advantage or the good of the criminal is sought.

Michel Foucault describes in detail the evolution of punishment from hanging, drawing and quartering of medieval times to the modern systems of fines and prisons. He sees a trend in criminal punishment from vengeance by the King to a more practical, utilitarian concern for deterrence and rehabilitation.

A particularly harsh punishment is sometimes said to be draconian, after Draco, the lawgiver of the classical polis of Athens. But as the adjective Spartan still testifies, its wholly militarized rival Sparta was the harshest a state of law can be on its own citizens, e.g. crypteia (including flogging for being caught when stealing as ordered).

In operant conditioning, punishment is the presentation of a stimulus contingent on a response which results in a decrease in response strength (as evidenced by a decrease in the frequency of response). The effectiveness of punishment in suppressing the response depends on many factors, including the intensity of the stimulus and the consistency with which the stimulus is presented when the response occurs. In parenting, additional factors that increase the effectiveness of punishment include a verbal explanation of the reason for the punishment and a good relationship between the parent and the child.

Types of punishments[]

Punishment can be divided into Positive punishment (the application of an aversive stimulus, such as pain) and Negative punishment (the removal or denial of a desired object, condition, or aversive stimulus).

Criminal punishment[]

  • Socio-economical punishments:
  • fines or loss of income
  • confiscation
  • demotion, suspension or expulsion (especially in a strict hierarchy, such as military or clergy)
  • restriction or loss of civic and other rights
  • community service
  • Custodial sentences include imprisonment and other forms of forced detention (e.g., involuntary institutional psychiatry) and hard labor are in fact also physical punishments, even if no actual beatings are in force internally; note that behavioral psychologists do not consider prison a sound punishment because most criminals are repeat offenders, thus, their behavior has not changed. If the behavior does not change then any stimulus that was presented is not punishment just aversive.
  • Public humiliation often combines social elements with corporal punishment, and indeed often punishments from two or more categories are combined (especially when these are meant reinforce each-other's effect) as in the logic of penal harm. In the past, people in some parts of the Western world were punished by being put in the stocks, or by being ducked in water.
  • Corporal punishment. Legality of these types of punishment varies from country to country. However it can be defined more widely:
  • Whipping or caning with various implements and on various body parts
  • Marking via branding or mutilations such as amputation of a finger or arm.
  • Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, the most extreme form of punishment, sometimes used in countries where beating is seen as inhumane. See use of death penalty worldwide. Methods of capital punishment include crucifixion, hanging, the firing squad, burning at the stake, lethal injection, gas chambers, beheading "by guillotine or axe", and starvation, among others.

For children[]

Examples of punishments imposed by educators (parents, guardians or teachers etc.; traditions differ greatly in time, place and cultural sphere; some are considered illegal abuse in certain countries) include:

  • Corporal punishment:
    • Mainly spanking in various modes (banned in some countries, in others even prescribed by law);
    • Washing out mouth with soap
  • Mild forms of custodial punishments:
    • time-outs such as corner-time.
    • detention, often combined with tasks like studying, extra homework etc.
    • grounding in general or specific refusal of permission to participate in some fun activity or to see a friend (usually seen as a bad influence)
  • Temporary (or permanent) removal of privileges, rights, or choices, such as lack of desserts or toys
  • Compulsory activity such as extra chores

Non-corporal forms of punishments for children have come under criticism in recent times. Arguments against non-violent modification of behavior include the issue of ethics, and whether one's will should be forced on children. Positive parenting and Taking Children Seriously are non-punitive alternatives to modifying behavior.


Many religious organizations apply semi-voluntary accepted punishments such as penance.

Possible reasons for punishment[]

See also: Criminal justice

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 contradictory justifications.


Main article: Rehabilitation (penology)

Some punishment includes work to reform and rehabilitate the wrongdoer so that they will not commit the offense 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 behaviour was wrong.


Incapacitation is a justification of punishment that refers to when the offender’s ability to commit further offences is removed. This is a forward-looking justification of punishment that views the future reductions in re-offending as sufficient justification for the punishment. This can occur in one of two ways; the offender’s ability to commit crime can be physically removed, or the offender can be geographically removed.

The offender’s ability to commit crime can be physically removed in several ways. This can include cutting the hands off a thief, as well as other crude punishments. The castration of offenders is another punishment that can be justified by incapacitation, furthered by recent media coverage in Britain of the proposed chemical castration of sexual offenders. Incapacitation, in this sense, can include any number of punishments including taking away the driving license off a dangerous driver but can also include capital punishment.

Despite this, incapacitation is predominately thought of as incarceration. Imprisonment has the effect of confining prisoners, physically preventing them from committing crimes against those outside, i.e. protecting the community. Before the widespread use of imprisonment, banishment was used as a form of incapacitation. Nowadays courts have a flexible array of sentence options available to them that can restrict offender’s movements, and subsequently their ability to commit crime. Football hooligans can, for example, be required to attend centres during football matches.

Selective incapacitation is a modified form of incapacitation that rationalises the practice of giving only dangerous and persistent offenders long, and in some case indefinite, prison sentences. The approach adopts a utilitarian viewpoint that regards the protection, and subsequent happiness, of the majority as justification of giving excessive and indefinite prison sentences. There is, however, strong moral opposition to this concept.


Main article: Restorative Justice

For minor offences, punishment may take the form of the offender "righting the wrong"; for example, a vandal might be made to clean up the mess he has made.

In more serious cases, punishment in the form of fines and compensation payments may also be considered a sort of "restoration".

Some libertarians argue that full restoration or restitution on an individualistic basis is all that is ever just, and that this is compatible with both retributivism and a utilitarian degree of deterrence.[1]


Main article: Retributive justice

Retribution is the practice of "getting even" with a wrongdoer — the suffering of the wrongdoer is seen as good in itself, even if it has no other benefits. One reason for societies to include this judicial element is to diminish the perceived need for street justice, blood revenge and vigilantism. However, some argue that this is a "zero sum game", that such acts of street justice and blood revenge are not removed from society, but responsibility for carrying them out is merely transferred to the state.

Retribution sets an important standard on punishment — the transgressor must get what he deserves, but no more. Therefore, a thief put to death is not retribution; a murderer put to death is. Adam Smith, who is credited as the father of Capitalism, wrote extensively about punishment. In his view, an important reason for punishment is not only deterrence, but also satisfying the resentment of the victim. Moreover, in the case of the death penalty, the retribution goes to the dead victim, not his family. (So, to extend Smith's views, a murderer can be spared the death penalty only by the victim's express wish, made when he was alive.) One great difficulty of this approach is that of judging exactly what it is that the transgressor "deserves". For instance, it may be retribution to put a thief to death if he steals a family's only means of livelihood; conversely, mitigating circumstances may lead to the conclusion that the execution of a murderer is not retribution.

A specific way to elaborate this concept in the very punishment is the mirror punishment (the more literal applications of "an eye for an eye"), a penal form of 'poetic justice' which reflects the nature or means of the crime in the means of (mainly corporal) punishment.


From German Criminal Law, Punishment can be explained by positive prevention theory to use criminal justice system to teach people what are the social norms for what is correct and acts as a reinforcement. It teaches people to obey the law and eliminates the free-rider principle of people not obeying the law getting away with it.

See also[]


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