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The limits of punishment: recent work on penal legitimacy



Contemporary theories of punishment are standardly concerned with answering the question of what makes punishment just? This is to say that penal philosophers almost invariably focus on (and often disagree about) whether retribution, prevention, rehabilitation or, more radically, the abolition of penal practices match our well-considered judgments of justice. While normatively and theoretically fruitful, the emphasis set on just punishment has prevented us from seriously addressing an equally significant question, which is what makes punishment legitimate? Given that questions of legitimacy are analytically distinct from and equally significant to questions of justice, the aim of this workshop is to bring debates about penal legitimacy to the forefront of normative theories of punishment. We intend to do so by exploring the problem of legitimate punishment both at the general level – by asking what are the legitimacy-generating grounds for punishment as a distinctive practice and institution different from other practices and institutions – and at a particular level, by asking what are the principles for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate forms and methods of punishment.

More specifically, we are interested in paper proposals that address one of the following themes:

  • The principles grounding the permissibility of punishment as a political and legal practice and/or the problem of the state’s legitimacy to monopolize penal power, as compared to other (non-state) institutional arrangements;
  • The relationship between penal legitimacy and other types of political and state legitimacy (as instantiated, for example, in social distributive practices);
  • The distinction between legally sanctioned forms of punishment and the ‘collateral’ (social, economic and political) consequences of conviction (such as criminal records, welfare assistance limitations, citizenship deprivation);
  • The abolition of specific forms and methods of punishment (most notable among which is the recent debate on prison abolitionism);
  • The limits of permissible punishment under non-ideal conditions (structural social injustice, pervasive non-compliance, inconsistent or incomplete enforcement of penal sanctions).