So far as punishment is vindictive, it makes a wicked man miserable, without making him less wicked, and without making any one else less wicked or less miserable. It can only be justified on one of two grounds. Either something else can be ultimately good, besides the condition of conscious beings, or the condition of a person who is wicked and miserable is better, intrinsically and without regard to the chance of future amendment, than the condition of a person who is wicked without being miserable. If either of these statements is true—to me they both seem patently false—then vindictive punishment may be justifiable both for determinists and indeterminists. If neither of them is true, it is no more justifiable for indeterminists than it is for determinists.
John McTaggart, Some Dogmas of Religion, London, 1906, p. 163
[Retributivism is] a mysterious piece of moral alchemy, in which the two evils of moral wickedness and suffering are transmuted into good.
H. L. A. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law, Oxford, 1968, pp. 234-235
The retributive theory allows criminals to be punished without reference to the social consequences of punishment. But suppose that, for a variety of reasons, punishment significantly increases the crime rate rather than reduces it. Mentally unstable persons might be attracted by the prospect of punishment. Punishment might embitter and alienate criminals from society and increase their criminal activities. If punishment had these and other bad effects, utilitarians would renounce punishment in favour of some other more effective approach for dealing with offenders. But retributivists are still committed to punishing criminals. The effect of retributive punishment in such a situation is that there will be an increase in the number of innocent victims of crime. For whose benefit is punishment to be instituted? Surely not for the benefit of law-abiding citizens who run an increased risk of being victims of crime. Why should innocent people suffer for the sake of dispensing retributive justice?
C. L. Ten, ‘Crime and Punishment’, in Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics, Oxford, 1991, p. 369
I think my greatest usefulness lies in what I’ve had the opportunity to demonstrate—that the most “hopeless” criminal in existence can be salvaged; that he’s worth salvaging, on both humanitarian and hard-headed social grounds.
Retributive justice and the execution chamber aren’t the answer. In seeking a solution to the crime problem, I believe that vision can and should be substituted for vengeance. I’m convinced that there is much that is narrow and negative and wrong in society’s attitude toward and treatment of the man who is said to be at “war” with it, and who often is at war with himself.
Caryl Chessman, Cell 2455, Death Row, New Jersey, 1960, p. 372
Those retributive theories that hold the punishment somehow should match the crime face a dilemma: either punishment fails to match the wrongness of the crime and so doesn’t retribute fully, or it matches the wrongness of the crime and so is unjustified.
Robert Nozick, Anarcy, State, and Utopia, New York, 1974, p. 60