To Blame or to forgive? Reconciling punishment and forgiveness in criminal justice

Nicola Lacey, Hanna Pickard

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30 Citations (Scopus)
222 Downloads (Pure)


What do you do when faced with wrongdoing—do you blame or do you forgive? Especially when confronted with offences that lie on the more severe end of the spectrum and cause terrible psychological or physical trauma or death, nothing can feel more natural than blame. Indeed, in the UK and the USA, increasingly vehement and righteous public expressions of blame and calls for vengeance have become commonplace; correspondingly, contemporary penal philosophy has witnessed a resurgence of the retributive tradition, in the modern form usually known as the ‘justice’ model. On the other hand, people can and routinely do forgive others, even in cases of severe crime. Evolutionary psychologists argue that both vengeance and forgiveness are universal human adaptations that have evolved as alternative responses to exploitation, and, crucially, strategies for reducing risk of re-offending. We are naturally endowed with both capacities: to blame and retaliate, or to forgive and seek to repair relations. Which should we choose? Drawing on evolutionary psychology, we offer an account of forgiveness and argue that the choice to blame, and not to forgive, is inconsistent with the political values of a broadly liberal society and can be instrumentally counter-productive to reducing the risk of future re-offending. We then sketch the shape of penal philosophy and criminal justice policy and practice with forgiveness in place as a guiding ideal.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOxford Journal of Legal Studies
Early online date2 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • punishment
  • retribution
  • criminal justice
  • ethics
  • political theory
  • forgiveness


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