Crime-control utilitarians and retributivist philosophers have long been at war over the appropriate distributive principle for criminal liability and punishment, with little apparent possibility of reconciliation between the two. In the utilitarians’ view, the imposition of punishment can be justified only by the practical benefit that it provides: avoiding future crime. In the retributivists’ view, doing justice for past wrongs is a value in itself that requires no further justification. The competing approaches simply use different currencies: fighting future crime versus doing justice for past wrongs.
It is argued here that the two are in fact reconcilable, in a fashion. We cannot declare a winner in the distributive principle wars but something more like a truce. Specifically, good utilitarians ought to support a distributive principle based upon desert because the empirical evidence suggests that doing justice for past wrongdoing is likely the most effective and efficient means of controlling future crime. A criminal justice system perceived by the community as conflicting with its principles of justice provokes resistance and subversion, whereas a criminal justice system that earns a reputation for reliably doing justice is one whose moral credibility inspires deference, assistance, and acquiescence, and is more likely to have citizens internalize its norms of what is truly condemnable conduct.
Retributivists ought to support empirical desert as a distributive principle because, while it is indeed distinct from deontological desert, there exists an enormous overlap between the two, and it seems likely that empirical desert may be the best practical approximation of deontological desert. Indeed, some philosophers would argue that the two are necessarily the same.