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Unformatted text preview: Dewey’s Rejection of Retributivism and His Moral-Education Theory of Punishment John Shook This essay examines the two important arguments that John Dewey’s social philosophy offers against the retributivist justification for punishment. The first argument is that retributivism cannot serve as an adequate expla- nation for the moral practice of punishment, while the second argument develops the position that a liberally democratic society would naturally prefer an alternative to the retributive model of punishment that is more con- sistent with democracy’s concern for the social good. Although Dewey did not fully develop a systematic theory of punishment, his writings on moral- ity, education, and democracy provide the foundations for constructing a Deweyan approach to the justification of punishment. The cornerstone is Dewey’s theory of moral education for a liberal democracy. This theory points the way toward an explanation of why and how society should aim at con- tinually developing the moral responsibility of all citizens. In brief, punish- ment should play an essential role in moral education by enhancing the ability of offenders to be more socially responsible in the future. Examination of Dewey’s arguments against retributivism shows how he provides an alter- native to both deontological and utilitarian approaches to punishment, thereby establishing a novel version of the moral-education theory of punishment. 1. Retribution and the Moral Practice of Punishment The relationship between punishment, responsibility, and morality can be expressed in a deceptively simple manner: Punishment minimally requires the moral disapproval of a person’s conduct (broadly understood), for which he or she is responsible. Dewey believed that it is essential to distinguish two divergent notions of responsibility, which in turn ground two very different approaches to morality, and thus to punishment. 1 The past-looking or “ret- rospective” concept of responsibility is involved when we assess the various relevant factors of the situation leading up to a person’s action to determine whether that person really performed the action. The forward-looking or “prospective” concept of responsibility is involved when we attend to the wider context of the past and future behavior of the person, so that her future behavior may be adjusted by our interventions. Dewey placed great weight on this distinction; for example, in his 1932 book Ethics he wrote the following: JOURNAL of SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 35 No. 1, Spring 2004, 66–78. © 2004 Blackwell Publishing, Inc. Now the commonest mistake in connection with the idea of responsibil- ity consists in supposing that approval and reprobation have a retro- spective instead of prospective bearing. The possibility of a desirable modification of character and the selection of the course of action which will make that possibility a reality is the central fact in responsibility. The child, for example, is at first held liable for what he has done, not because...
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- Philosophy, retributivism. Dewey