From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on the philosophy of punishment, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s worth noting that there is no single best book on the philosophy of punishment. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on the philosophy of punishment in no particular order.
The Problem of Punishment – David Boonin
Publisher description: In this book, David Boonin examines the problem of punishment, and particularly the problem of explaining why it is morally permissible for the state to treat those who break the law in ways that would be wrong to treat those who do not. Boonin argues that there is no satisfactory solution to this problem and that the practice of legal punishment should therefore be abolished. Providing a detailed account of the nature of punishment and the problems that it generates, he offers a comprehensive and critical survey of the various solutions that have been offered to the problem and concludes by considering victim restitution as an alternative to punishment. Written in a clear and accessible style, The Problem of Punishment will be of interest to anyone looking for a critical introduction to the subject as well as to those already familiar with it.
Why Punish? How Much?: A Reader on Punishment – Michael Tonry
Publisher description: Punishment, like all complex human institutions, tends to change as ways of thinking go in and out of fashion. Normative, political, social, psychological, and legal ideas concerning punishment have changed drastically over time, and especially in recent decades. Why Punish? How Much? collects essays from classical philosophers and contemporary theorists to examine these shifts. Michael Tonry has gathered a comprehensive set of readings ranging from Kant, Hegel, and Bentham to recent writings on developments in the behavioral and medical sciences. Together they cover foundations of punishment theory such as consequentialism, retributivism, and functionalism, new approaches like restorative, communitarian, and therapeutic justice, and mixed approaches that attempt to link theory and policy. This volume includes an accessible introduction that chronicles the development of punishment systems and theorizing over the course of the last two centuries. Why Punish? How Much? provides a fresh and comprehensive approach to thinking about punishment and sentencing for a broad range of law, sociology, philosophy, and criminology courses.
The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy and Science of Punishment – Focquaert, Shaw, and Waller
Publisher description: Philosophers, legal scholars, criminologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists have long asked important questions about punishment: What is its purpose? What theories help us better understand its nature? Is punishment just? Are there effective alternatives to punishment? How can empirical data from the sciences help us better understand punishment? What are the relationships between punishment and our biology, psychology, and social environment? How is punishment understood and administered differently in different societies? The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy and Science of Punishment is the first major reference work to address these and other important questions in detail, offering 31 chapters from an international and interdisciplinary team of experts in a single, comprehensive volume. It covers the major theoretical approaches to punishment and its alternatives; emerging research from biology, psychology, and social neuroscience; and important special issues like the side-effects of punishment and solitary confinement, racism and stigmatization, the risk and protective factors for antisocial behavior, and victims’ rights and needs. …
The Principles of Morals and Legislation – Jeremy Bentham
Publisher description: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation is a book by philosopher Jeremy Bentham “originally printed in 1780, and first published in 1789.” Bentham’s “most important theoretical work,” it is where Bentham develops his theory of utilitarianism and is the first major book on the topic.
Publisher description: This classic collection of essays, first published in 1968, has had an enduring impact on academic and public debates about criminal responsibility and criminal punishment. Forty years on, its arguments are as powerful as ever. H.L.A. Hart offers an alternative to retributive thinking about criminal punishment that nevertheless preserves the central distinction between guilt and innocence. He also provides an account of criminal responsibility that links the distinction between guilt and innocence closely to the ideal of the rule of law, and thereby attempts to by-pass unnerving debates about free will and determinism. Always engaged with live issues of law and public policy, Hart makes difficult philosophical puzzles accessible and immediate to a wide range of readers. …
Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison – Michel Foucault
Publisher description: In this brilliant work, the most influential philosopher since Sartre suggests that such vaunted reforms as the abolition of torture and the emergence of the modern penitentiary have merely shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner’s body to his soul.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
Publisher description: Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” As the Birmingham Newsproclaimed, it is “undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.” …
The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice – Reiman & Leighton
Publisher description: For nearly 40 years, this classic text has taken the issue of economic inequality seriously and asked: Why are our prisons filled with the poor? Why aren’t the tools of the criminal justice system being used to protect Americans from predatory business practices and to punish well-off people who cause widespread harm?
The Rich Get Richer shows readers that much that goes on in the criminal justice system violates citizens’ sense of basic fairness. It presents extensive evidence from mainstream data that the criminal justice system does not function in the way it says it does nor in the way that readers believe it should. The authors develop a theoretical perspective from which readers might understand these failures and evaluate them morally―and they to do it in a short and relatively inexpensive text written in plain language. …
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Philosophy of Crime and Punishment – University of Richmond
- Philosophy of Punishment – University of South Florida
- Punishment and Social Justice – Harvard University
- Theories of Punishment – Yale University
- Theories of Punishment – University of California, Irvine
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Punishment
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Punishment
- The political philosophy of criminal punishment
- Any philosopher related to punishment or punishment theories?
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on Political Philosophy
- The Best Books on Justice
Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy readings lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.
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