Punishment – the Definition

Punishment describes the act of imposing something unpleasant or aversive on a person or animal in response to an unwanted behaviour. The behaviour may be unwanted for any number of reasons, including disobedience and immorality, and the unpleasantness may take any number of forms, but we understand the use of punishment as intended to condition the person or animal to stop the behaviour, to learn not to do it. We use the term to mean some unpleasantness brought to bear by an authority onto a misbehaving party with the intention of correcting the misbehaviour. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,

“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.”

In short form, then, in the most general view, punishment is the act of an authorized person imposing something unpleasant or aversive in response to an unwanted behaviour.

In the technical language of psychology, the definition of ‘the reduction of a behaviour by the removal (negative punishment) or application (positive punishment) of a stimulus’ only applies if the intended result is actually achieved, if the unwanted behaviour is reduced. This ‘application of aversives’ is only elevated to the definition ‘punishment’ if it succeeds.

It is possible to break the idea of punishment down into its components, or aspects, and those may need some definition as well:


Possibly the original idea of punishment, the straight-forward practice of getting “even” with someone who has caused harm, the idea that the perpetrator of a wrong then suffers is seen as just and proper, even if no other benefit is seen. While it may be seen as abuse, it is considered to be justifiable on the basis that when there is no retribution, the innocent victim suffers more than the guilty party, which would be counter-intuitive to a just society. Having said that, a brutal retribution probably also has aspects of either incapacitation or deterrent (see below). Part of the definition is that the miscreant suffers a fate that is equal to the suffering of his victim.


This is the attempt to turn the criminal away from crime, to show him the error of his ways, and to try to give him another way to live, to bring him back to the life of the just, that he won’t return to crime when he can. This is a lofty goal, not really part of his punishment as such, but often attempted simultaneously with punishment.


This refers to restricting a miscreant’s ability to continue his wrong deeds, in order to protect future victims. Common methods have been exile, incarceration, or the more brutal practices of mutilation, such as castration of rapists or the cutting off of hands for thievery.


Simply put, the wrong-doer simply is made to right the wrong, perhaps cleaning up a mess he created, or repaying money he stole. This is seen as a more rational sort of consequence than some other types of action that can be taken against a criminal.


The idea that the prospect of a punishment could stop a crime from ever being committed, that if the criminal knows the punishment and fears it, he may decide against the crime, it is often referred to in cases of severe punishments, the more severe, that the stronger the deterrent effect. In cases of capital punishment (the death penalty), deterrent is the argument for it, along with retribution, being that other aspects of punishing, like restoration, or rehabilitation, cannot be applied.

Corporal punishment:

Physical punishment, the deliberate application of physical pain applied as retribution and/or deterrent. According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, corporal punishment is

“any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2001) “General Comment No. 1.” Par. 11.)

Regarding authority, punishments can be legitimately administered by:

– parents or guardians upon children, except that in the case of corporal punishment of children, 32 countries have outlawed it (The U.S.A. is not one of them.)
– teachers and administrators of schools upon students, although not universally, and again, except in the case of corporal punishment of minors, where it has been outlawed in many countries and many of the US states
– criminal courts
– prison authorities
– military organizations
– church hierarchies
– employers (by contract – demotions, etc.)

So, to repeat, for the purposes of this conversation, this will be my definition of punishment, considering the above comments: the act of an authorized person imposing something unpleasant or aversive in response to an unwanted behaviour. To add to it, I think we need to say that the motive is important to the definition, and for me, “in response” doesn’t really say it. The intent of the response, then, is to change the behaviour in order to serve some accepted desire or need of the punisher or the society.

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