Kantian Journal

2013 Issue №3(45)

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The justification of legal punishment in Kant’s philosophy



The subject matter of the article is the problem of justification of punishment within Kant’s practical philosophy. Modern interpretations tend to reduce this problem to the issue of “retributivism”: To what extent is Kant’s theory of punishment to be regarded as retributivist? While acknowledging the significance of this question the author stresses a more fundamental one lying behind it: Is a non-contradictory theory of punishment conceivable at all within Kant’s philosophy? It is demonstrated that a solution of this question largely determines a justification of the doctrine of right as such as well as a solution of the problem of relation between right and ethics in Kantian philosophy. Some recent interpretations of Kant’s theory of punishment are examined, particularly those by O. Hoeffe and B. Byrd. It is demonstrated that neither is actually compatible with Kant’s statement that punishment is a categorical imperative. Futhermore, it is shown that this statement is crucial and necessary for Kant’s universalist project of justification of right. At the same time, it is shown that it is the universalism of Kant’s practical philosophy that leads to a kind of paradox of punishment: the categorical imperative of punishment might well demand those very actions which the categorical imperative as we know it from the “Groundwork” seems to forbid. It is proposed to see this paradox as another antinomy of practical reason. The hypothesis is offered that the separation of the principles of virtue directed to an individual will and right covering the public sphere can be considered as an attempt to solve this very antinomy.


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