The Question of Punishment and the Contemporary Relevance of Thomas Aquinas

Dissertation, University of Toronto (Canada) (2002)

Justifying the human institution of punishment has been a central theme in the history of moral and political philosophy. At no time has this been more apparent than at the present, where this question has evoked a great debate between two schools of thought, namely, utilitarianism and retributivism. This thesis firstly attempts to articulate the central questions underlying this debate and to articulate the powerful criticisms each side renders against one another. It is our thesis that, whereas each side seems to be successful in pointing out the defects of their opponent, neither has been able to answer the most powerful criticisms rendered against them. The result of this, we argue, is that one must look beyond the contemporary debate to see the true meaning and justification of punishment within political life. This is possible either by construing a theory of punishment not yet considered by the tradition of political philosophy, or by rediscovering a theory of punishment articulated by one of that tradition's non-contemporary members. This thesis opts for the latter, and considers the contribution Thomas Aquinas can make to this great question. ;The thesis contains six chapters. The first chapter considers the roots of utilitarianism and retributivism by looking to the thought of Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant. Each thinker is introduced by a brief discussion of his moral and political thought as a whole followed by a treatment of his understanding of punishment. The second chapter is concerned more with the contemporary literature, and with the specific arguments of utilitarians and retributivists against one another. Chapter Three introduces the thought of Thomas Aquinas and is chiefly concerned with establishing the meaning of punishment in its widest moral, political, and theological significance. Chapter Four continues this discussion by considering divine punishment, a question not central to the contemporary debate but essential for understanding Thomas' contribution. Chapter Five considers Thomas' discussion of human punishment, or his understanding of punishment's role and justification within the human political order. Chapter Six concludes by discussing Thomas' teaching in light of the contemporary debate between utilitarians and retributivists, and by explaining his contribution to that debate
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