The Doctrine of Punishment: John Stuart Mill

The Doctrine of Punishment

I. After offences, comes the consideration of the punishment to be annexed to them. This is a subject of considerable detail; it has been, however, so fully and admirably treated by Mr. Bentham, that only some of the more general considerations, necessary to mark out the place and importance of the topic, need here to be introduced.

When a right has been infringed, there are two things, it is evident, which ought to be done: The injury which has been sustained by the individual ought to be repaired: And means ought to be taken to prevent the occurrence of a like evil in future.

The doctrine of Satisfaction is not at all difficult, as far as regards the regulating principles; the complication is all in the detail. The greater number of injuries are those which concern property. A pecuniary value can generally be set upon injuries of this sort; though it is not very easy to determine the pretium affectionis, a matter of considerable importance, which the English law, so much made up of clumsiness in one part, and false refinement in another, wholly overlooks. For injuries to the person, also, it is most frequently in the pecuniary shape alone that any compensation can be made. In making these estimates, some general marks are all that can be conveniently defined by the law, and a considerable discretion must be left to the judge. Indeed, the question of damages is always a question of fact, which must be determined by the evidence adduced in each instance.

It accords with the feelings of every man to say, that he who has committed an injury, should be made to repair it. One part of punishment, therefore, ought, wherever special reason does not intervene, to consist in making satisfaction to the party injured. Pecuniary satisfaction, where the delinquent is rich, may be a small part of the due punishment; still, however, there is an obvious propriety, in making it a part so far as it can go. In the cases in which the delinquent has no property, there is the same propriety in making his labour subservient to that end. Hard labour, with the most economical fare, till the produce of the labour [18] equals the amount of the satisfaction required, is, therefore, a species of punishment, recommended by the strongest considerations. It is not said that labour so limited would always be sufficient punishment, and there are many cases in which it would be too much; but even then, it should go as far as it can in the one case, and as far as it ought in the other.

When the injury is done to reputation, there is a manifest propriety in making the injurer contribute to the reparation, wherever it can be done. In many of the cases, too, the proper mode is abundantly obvious: all those, for example, where the publication of falsehood is the injurious act. The author of the injury may be obliged to declare, in a way as public as that of the offence, and as well calculated as possible for the reparation of the injury, that he has been solemnly adjudged to have propagated a falsehood, and is condemned to publish his own shame.

In the case of those offences which affect rights indirectly, namely, by affecting the securities provided for them, satisfaction seldom can have any place, because no determinate individual or individuals have sustained an injury.

This may suffice, in exposition of the first thing which is desirable where an injury has been committed, namely, that reparation should be made. The second is, that measures should be adopted for preventing the future occurrence of similar events.

Acts are performed, only because there are motives to the performance of them. Of course injurious acts are performed, only because there are motives to the performance of them.

Corporal restraint being out of the question where all the members of the community are concerned, it is evident that only two means remain for preventing injurious acts; either, first, to take away the motives which provoke to them; or, secondly, to apply motives sufficient for the prevention of them.

From the very nature of many of the acts it is impossible to take away the motives which provoke to them. From property stolen it is impossible to detach the value of the property; from vengeance it is impossible to detach the hope of that relief which is sought by the blow that is aimed.

What is wanted, then, is a sufficiency of motive in each instance to counteract the motives which lead to the crime. Whatever the motives of the alluring kind which lead to an act, if you give stronger motives of the same kind to abstain from the act, the act will, of course, be prevented. The man who would steal from you 5l. will assuredly not do so, if he knows that he shall receive 6l. for abstaining.

The question may then be started, Why should not all crimes be prevented in this way, since reward is much more desirable and humane than punishment? The answer is most satisfactory, and is built upon a ground which ought to receive profound attention, on many occasions, on which it is treated with the most perfect disregard. No reward can be given to one man, or set of men, but at the expence of some other man [19] or set of men. What is reward to one is therefore punishment to others. If 6l. be given to the man who would steal 5l., it must be taken from some one or more individuals of the community. If one man is elevated by any title or distinction, all the rest with regard to him are degraded and depressed. This is utterly unavoidable. The one event is necessarily included in the other. The giving of rewards, therefore, is a matter of serious import. It is not that simple act, that pure creation of good, which it is often so fraudulently given out to be, and so credulously and foolishly admitted to be.

Other reasons, which prove the insufficiency of rewards for preventing injurious acts, are too obvious to require to be mentioned. We shall not, therefore, dwell upon this topic. This at least is sufficiently evident, that to counteract the motives which lead to the commission of an act, we have but two methods. If we cannot apply motives of the pleasurable sort, to induce the party to abstain from committing the act, we must apply such motives, of the painful sort, as will outweigh the motives which prompt to the performance. To prevent, by such means, a theft of 5l., it is absolutely necessary to affix to that act a degree of punishment which shall outweigh the advantage of possessing 5l.

We have now, it is evident, obtained the principle by which punishment ought to be regulated. We desire to prevent certain acts: That is our end, and the whole of our end: We shall assuredly prevent any acts, if we attach to them motives of the painful kind, sufficient to outweigh the motives of the opposite kind which lead to the performance. If we apply a less quantity of evil than is sufficient for outweighing those motives, the act will still be performed, and the evil will be inflicted to no purpose; it will be so much suffering in waste. If we apply a greater quantity of evil than is necessary, we incur a similar inconvenience; we create a quantity of evil which is absolutely useless; the act, which it is the tendency of the motives of the pleasurable kind to produce, will be prevented, if the motives of the painful kind outweigh them in the smallest degree, as certainly as if it outweigh them to any degree whatsoever. As soon, therefore, as the legislator has reached that point, he ought immediately to stop. Every atom of punishment which goes beyond is so much uncompensated evil, so much human misery created without any corresponding good. It is pure unmingled mischief.

As no exact measure, indeed, can be taken of the quantity of pain which will outweigh a supposed quantity of pleasure, it is sometimes necessary to risk going somewhat beyond the mark, in order to make sure of not falling short of it. And, in the case of acts of which the evil is very great; of the higher order of crimes, in short; it may be expedient to risk a considerable degree of excess in order to make sure of reaching the point of efficiency.

In estimating the quantity of evil which it may be necessary to create, in order to compensate the motive which leads to a mischievous act, two circumstances should be taken into the account. These are, certainty, and  proximity. It is of the less importance here to enter far into the illustration of these topics, that they are now pretty generally understood. It is well known that the prospect of an evil which is to happen within an hour, or two hours, produces a much greater uneasiness, than the prospect of the very same evil removed to the distance of years. Every man knows that he will die within a certain number of years; many are aware that they cannot live beyond a few years; and this knowledge produces no uneasiness. The effort, on the other hand, which enables a man to behave with tranquillity, on the prospect of immediate death, is supposed to be so difficult, that it is this which makes the hero. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance, that punishment should be immediate; because, in that case, a much smaller quantity of evil suffices. It is imperatively required, by the laws of benevolence, that, if evil is a necessary means to our end, every expedient should be used to reduce it to the smallest quantity possible. It is cruelty; it belongs only to a malignant nature; to apply evil in a way which demands a quantity of it greater than would otherwise have been required. Suppose a law, that no act of theft should be punished or challenged till twenty years after the commission, or till the life of the thief was supposed to be near its end. It is evident that all punishment in this case; that death, in the greatest torture, would be nearly destitute of power. This is partly the ground of the complaint, of the little efficacy of religious punishment, though dreadful beyond expression in the degree.

The want of certainty is a defect of equal importance. If it is a matter of doubt, whether a threatened evil will take place, the imagination is prone to magnify the chance of its not happening; and, by indulgence, magnifies it to such a degree, that the opposite chance at last excites a comparatively feeble influence. This is a remarkable law of human nature, from the influence of which even the most wise and prudent of men are not exempt; and of which the influence is predominant in these inconsiderate minds which are the most apt to give way to the allurements of vice. To illustrate this law, the influence of the religious punishments affords the most instructive of all examples. The punishments themselves go far beyond what the imagination can conceive. It is the complaint of divines, and the observation of all the world, that, with the great body of men, the efficacy of them is exceedingly small. The reason is, that to the want of proximity is added the greatest uncertainty. If a man puts his fingers in the candle, he knows that he will be punished, and immediately, by being burned. If a man commits even a heinous sin, he has no fear of receiving the religious punishment immediately, and he conceives that, in the mercy of his Judge, in repentance and faith, he has a chance of escaping it altogether. This chance his imagination exaggerates, and most men can, in this way, go on sinning with tranquillity, to the end of their days. If all punishments were as certain and immediate as that of putting a finger in the candle, the smallest quantity it is evident, beyond what would form a counterbalance to the advantage of the forbidden act, would suffice for [21] its prevention. If uncertainty is admitted, to any considerable degree, no quantity of evil will suffice. It is a fact, which experience has most fully established, and which is now recognized in the most vulgar legislation, that undue severity of punishment runs counter to its end. This it does by increasing uncertainty; because men are indisposed to be the instruments of inflicting evil by which their feelings are lacerated. That legislation, therefore, is bad, which does not take measures for the greatest possible degree of proximity and certainty in the punishments which it applies.

The sources are three, from which motives of the painful sort, applicable to the purposes of the legislator, are capable of being drawn:—1. The physical; 2dly, The moral; and, 3dly, The religious.

I. Pains from the Physical Source may be communicated to a man through,

1. His person,

2. His connections,

3. His property.

Through his person, they may be communicated in four principal ways,—by death, disablement, restraint and constraint, simple pain.

A man’s connections are either public or private; private, as spouse, parent, servant, master, & etc.; public, as ruler, subject, teacher, scholar, and so on.

The modes in which a man is punished through his property need no explanation.

II. Pains, from the Moral Source, are the pains which are derived from the unfavourable sentiments of mankind. For the strength of the pains, derived from this source, we must refer to the writers who have treated of this part of human nature. It is sufficient here to advert to what is universally recognized, that these pains are capable of rising to a height, with which hardly any other pains, incident to our nature, can be compared; that there is a certain degree of unfavourableness in the sentiments of his fellow creatures, under which, hardly any man, not below the standard of humanity, can endure to live.

The importance of this powerful agency for the prevention of injurious acts, is too obvious to need to be illustrated. If sufficiently at command, it would almost supersede the use of other means. It is, therefore, one of the first objects to the legislator to know, in what manner he can employ the pains of the popular sanction with the greatest possible effect.

To know how to direct the unfavourable sentiments of mankind, it is necessary to know in as complete, that is, in as comprehensive a way as possible, what it is which gives them birth. Without entering into the metaphysics of the question, it is a sufficient practical answer, for the present purpose, to say, that the unfavourable sentiments of men are excited by every thing which hurts them. They love that which gives [22] them pleasure; hate that which gives them pain. Those acts of other men which give them pleasure or save them from pain, acts of beneficence, acts of veracity, and so on, they love. Acts, on the other hand, which give them pain, mendacity, and so on, they hate. These sentiments, when the state of mind is contemplated out of which the acts are supposed to arise, are transformed into approbation and disapprobation, in all their stages and degrees; up to that of the highest veneration, down to that of the deepest abhorrence and contempt.

The unfavourable sentiments, which the legislator would excite towards forbidden acts, must, therefore, in each man, arise from his conception of the mischievousness of those acts. That conception depends upon three circumstances; 1st, The view which he himself takes of the act; 2dly, The view which appears to be taken by other people; 3dly, Every thing which operates to render more or less permanently present to his mind his own and other men’s conception of its mischievousness. From these circumstances, the practical rules for applying this great power, as an instrument of the legislator for the prevention of mischievous acts, are easily deduced.

1. Let the best measures be taken for giving the people a correct view of the mischievousness of the act; and then their unfavourable sentiments will be duly excited. 2. Let proper pains be taken that the people shall know every mischievous act that is committed, and know its author; that, so, no evil act may, by concealment, escape the punishment which their unfavourable sentiments imply. 3. Let the legislature, as the leading section of the public, make publication of its own unfavourable sentiments; let it brand the act with infamy. 4. Let the same publication of his own unfavourable sentiments be made by the judge in the shape of reprimand and other declarations. 5. The legislature may increase the effect of these declarations, where the case requires it, by symbolical marks; or, 6, by personal exposure. 7. The legislature may so order matters in certain cases, that the mischievous act can be done only through another act already infamous; as when it is more infamous to break a vow to God than to make false declarations to men, a witness may be made to swear that he will tell the truth. 8. As the favourable sentiments of mankind are powerfully excited towards wealth, a man suffers through the popular sanction when his property is so diminished as to lessen his rank.

III. In pointing and proportioning the apprehension of divine punishment, the legislator can do three things:

1. He can declare his own apprehension, and the measure of it, which should be as exactly proportioned as possible to the mischievousness of the acts:

2. He can hire other people to declare similar apprehensions, and to make the most of the means which are available for their propagation:

3. He may discountenance the pointing of religious apprehensions to any acts which are not mischievous; or the pointing of them more strongly to acts which are slightly, than to acts which are deeply mischievous. [23] Whatever power of restraining from mischievous acts may be lodged in religious apprehensions, is commonly misapplied and wasted. It would be worth the cost, therefore, of pretty forcible means to prevent such a misapplication and waste of religious fears.*

In drawing from one, or more, of these sources, a lot of punishment adapted to each particular case, the following properties, desirable in a lot of punishment, ought to be steadily borne in view. Every lot of punishment ought, as much as possible, to be,

1. Susceptible of graduation, so as to be applied in different degrees.

2. Measurable, that the difference of degrees may be duly ascertained.

3. Equable, that is, calculated to operate with the same intensity upon all persons.

4. Such, that the thought of the punishment may naturally excite the thought of the crime.

5. Such, that the conception of it may be naturally vivid and intense.

6. Public, addressed to the senses.

7. Reformative.

8. Disabling; viz. from crime.

9. Remediable; viz. if afterwards found to be undeserved.

10. Compensative; viz. to the party injured.

11. Productive; viz. to the community, as labour.

Of all the instruments of punishment which have yet occurred to the ingenuity of man, there is none which unites these desirable qualities in any thing like an equal degree with the Panopticon Penitentiary, as devised and described by Mr. Bentham.

One general rule applies, in the case of all the lots of punishment. It is this: That the private good which has operated as the motive to the injurious action, should, in all possible cases, be cut off, and the expected enjoyment prevented. Where this can be done completely, all the additional punishment necessary is only that which would suffice to compensate the want of certainty and proximity in the act of deprivation; for no man would commit a crime which he was sure he could not profit by; no man would steal, if he knew that the property stolen would that minute be taken from him. The interests which are capable of being promoted by a criminal act, may be summed up under the following titles:

1. Money, or money’s worth.

2. Power.

3. Revenge.

4. Vanity, emulation.

5. Sensual pleasure, chiefly venereal.

6. Safety in respect to legal punishment.

With respect to four of these interests, viz. money, power, vanity, and safety in respect to legal punishment, the contemplated benefit is capable, in many cases, of being completely intercepted.

In the case in which revenge has operated through the degradation of the party suffering, the evil doer may be disappointed by re-exaltation of the degraded party.

Sensual pleasure, having been enjoyed, is beyond the reach of this operation.

It is highly worthy of observation, that, among the advantages constituting the motives to crime, those which can be cut off, and from the enjoyment of which the offender can be precluded, constitute by far the most frequent incentives to crime.

This must suffice as a summary of what should be said on the mode of applying pain most usefully for the prevention of certain acts. It only remains to add, that the following are the cases in which it may be pronounced unfit that pain should be employed for that purpose:

1. Where the evil to the community does not overbalance the good to the individual.

2. Where the evil necessary for the punishment would outweigh the evil of the act.

3. Where the evil created is not calculated to prevent the act.

4. Where the end could be obtained by other means.


Source: James Mill, Jurisprudence [1825] An Articles in the Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1825)