Retributive theories claim that punishment is justified because, and only because, the wrongdoer deserves it for having done wrong. These theories "look back" to the wrong action in order to explain why the person who performed it deserves punishment. They focus on the abstract need to balance the scales of justice by giving the wrongdoer what she deserves while, at the same time, respecting her dignity. They do not explain adequately the benefit of punishment for society, and they are silent on the relationship of the victim to the practice of punishment. .
Consequentialist theories justify punishment on the basis of social benefit. They are classified as forward-looking because they take the future benefit of society to be a necessary condition for punishment. Criticisms of consequentialist approaches center on worries that social utility will take precedence over wrongdoers' rights or even lead to the punishment of innocents. Another important criticism--one seldom mentioned by philosophers but increasingly discussed in social debate--is that the victim's concerns may be overridden by those of society. .
Mixed theories, of which H.L.A. Hart's is perhaps the best example, rightly attempt to incorporate a plurality of reasons for punishment.(Hart, 1968) According to Hart, the inadequacies of theories which attempt to justify punishment based on a single principle can be met by one that incorporates partly discrepant principles by separating the distinct questions involved in justifying the social institution. The key to Hart's proposal is the distinction he makes between retribution as a general justifying aim and retribution in distribution. Whereas taking retribution as a justifying aim would conflict with the aim of social benefit, retribution in distribution merely places a restriction on the unqualified pursuit of that aim. Limiting the consequentialist aim in this way avoids the conflict.