The Non-Moral Basis for Eliminating Retributivism

Main Article Content

Stephen Morris


While increasing numbers of philosophers have argued for eliminating the retributivist elements of criminal justice systems, their arguments often fall short due to internal inconsistency. Some of the best known of these arguments — such as those provided by Derk Pereboom and Gregg Caruso — rely on the claim that there are moral grounds for rejecting retributivism. In defending this claim, these philosophers typically provide arguments seeking to undermine the type of agent responsibility that they believe is needed to justify retributivism. This is usually followed by an assertion that since the excessive suffering caused by retributivist punishment cannot be justified, it is therefore immoral to preserve remnants of it in our criminal justice systems. This paper — which opposes the moral case against retributivism provided by Pereboom and Caruso, and favors non-moral reasons that recommend rejecting a retributivist approach — is divided into three parts. In part one, I discuss why Pereboom and Caruso are correct in thinking that free will skepticism undercuts the moral justification for retributivism. Part two sets out to explain why their moral case against retributivism fails insofar as it runs afoul of the folk intuitions that are called upon to defend Pereboom’s account of free will skepticism. In part three, I provide a non-moral case against the retributivism that is founded on considerations of self-interest and empathy.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
Morris, Stephen. 2023. “The Non-Moral Basis for Eliminating Retributivism”. Diametros, December, 1-17.
Share |


BBC News (2019), “How Norway Turns Criminals Into Good Neighbours,” URL = [Accessed 4.05.2023].

Bennechi L. (2021), “Recidivism Imprisons American Progress,” Harvard Political Review, URL = [Accessed 15.11.2022].

Borduin Ch.M., Mann B.J., Cone L.T., Henggeler S.W., Fucci B.R., Blaske D.M., Williams R.A. (1995), “Multisystemic Treatment of Serious Juvenile Offenders: Long-Term Prevention of Criminality and Violence,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 63 (4): 569–578.

Caruso G. (2012), Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will, Lexington Books, Plymouth.

Caruso G. (2018), “Justice Without Retribution,” Neuroethics 13 (1): 13–28.

Caruso G. (2021), Rejecting Retributivism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Everett J., Clark C., Meindl P., Luguri J., Earp B., Graham J., Ditto P.H., Shariff A. (2021), “Political Differences in Free Will Belief Are Associated With Differences in Moralization,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 120 (2): 461–483.

Farrell G., Clark K. (2004), “What Does the World Spend on Criminal Justice?,” HEUNI Paper Series No. 20, European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, Helsinki.

Ferguson D. (2014), Inferno, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Holland J. (2013), “Land of the Free? US Has 25 Percent of the World’s Prisoners,” Moyers and Company, URL = [Accessed 6.08.2014].

Kuhn C. (2021), “The U.S. Spends Billions to Lock People Up, But Very Little to Help Them Once They’re Released,” PBS News Hour, URL = [Accessed 11/17/22].

Landenberger N.A., Lipsey M.W. (2005), “The Positive Effects of Cognitive-Behavioral Programs for Offenders: A Meta-Analysis of Factors Associated with Effective Treatment,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 1 (4): 451–476.

Pereboom D. (2001), Living Without Free Will, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Pereboom D. (2007), “Response to Kane, Fischer, and Vargas,” [in:] Four Views on Free Will, J.M. Fischer, R. Kane, D. Pereboom, M. Vargas (eds.), Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA: 191–203.

Pereboom D. (2009), “Hard Incompatibilism and Its Rivals,” Philosophical Studies 144 (1): 21–33.

Pereboom D. (2013), “Free Will Skepticism and Criminal Punishment,” [in:] The Future of Punishment, T.A. Nadelhoffer (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford: 49–78.

Pereboom D. (2014), Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Pereboom D. (2021), Wrongdoing and The Moral Emotions, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Schmitt J., Warner K., Gupta S. (2010), “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration,” Center for Economic and Policy Research: 1–15.

Shariff A. F., Greene J. D., Karremans J. C., Luguri J., Clark C. J., Schooler J. W., Baumeister R., Vohs K. (2014), “Free will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution,” Psychological Science 25 (8): 1563–1570.

Subramanian R., Shames A. (2013), Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States, Vera Institute of Justice, New York.

Vargas M. (2007), “Revisionism,” [in:] Four Views on Free Will, J. Fischer, R. Kane, D. Pereboom, M. Vargas (eds.), Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA: 126–165.

Vargas M. (2009), “Revisionism About Free Will: A Statement and Defense,” Philosophical Studies 144 (1): 45–62.

Wagner P., Rabuy, B. (2017), “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” Prison Policy Initiative, URL = [Accessed 23.10.2023].

Walen, A. (2020), “Retributive Justice,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = [Accessed 23.10.2023].