Does punishment serve any useful long term purpose? It always seems like punishments that are excessively harsh lead to civil unrest, and punishments that are not harsh enough are thereby render quite useless. So is there a medium at which punishment is a useful tool in society, or is it just an archaic mode of retribution?

There's been lots of interesting philosophical work on punishment, including discussions that defend a retributive account of punishment and discussions that justify punishment on other grounds, for example, deterring future crime. So, if any of those defenses or justifications is correct, then, yes, punishment does serve a useful long term purpose for (depending on the exact account that is correct) the criminal, his or her victim, or the society in which he or she lives.

Of the philosophical treatments of the questions you raise, I most highly recommend an Enlightenment thinker who once was widely read but, unfortunately, no longer is: Cesare Beccaria. His short book On Crimes and Punishments (1764) condemned the use of torture, argued for the abolition of capital punishment, and advocated many reforms for the rational and fair administration of law. Beccaria’s ideas about legal and penal reforms, which influenced intellectuals and statesmen throughout Europe and in North America, inspired many significant reforms in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century. Becarria's book also influenced Jeremy Bentham who, along with Beccaria, produced the foundational ideas of the classical school of criminology.

Many of the reforms that Beccaria advocated remain aspirations for contemporary systems of legal justice, including punishment proportionate to the severity of the crime and the development of a system of published laws and legal procedures applied equally to all without interference by the particular interests of rulers, judges, or clerics and without providing favorable treatment to individuals of higher social, political, or economic status.

For more on Beccaria see:

Beccaria, C. (2008). On crimes and punishments and other writings (A. Thomas Ed. & A. Thomas & J. Parzen Trans.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Original work published 1764.)

The text of On Crimes and Punishments plus three significant contemporary scholarly reactions by Ferdinando Facchinei (1765), Pietro and Allessandro Verri (1765), and Voltaire (1766). The book also includes a text related to Beccaria’s political work reforming the death penalty in Lombardy and contains an extensive introduction to Beccaria’s life and ideas by the prominent Italian scholar Alberto Burgio. This translation has greater literary elegance than the Cambridge edition.

Beccaria, C. (1995). On crimes and punishments and other writings (R. Bellamy Ed. & R. Davies Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1764).

The text of On Crimes and Punishments plus selections from Beccaria’s academic lectures, economic writings, and intellectual correspondence. Includes a useful bibliographical sketch, chronology, bibliographical glossary, and explanatory footnotes.

Davis, D. (1957). The movement to abolish capital punishment in America, 1787-1861. The American Historical Review, 63(1), 23-46.

An historical account of capital punishment reform in America that includes an extensive discussion of Beccaria’s influence in the United States. This article also relates Beccaria’s ideas to those of John Locke and addresses the use of Beccaria’s secular arguments by members of American religious communities that advocated the abolition of capital punishment.

Maestro, Marcello (1973). Cesare Beccaria and the origins of penal reform. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

The only book-length biography of Beccaria published in English. Maestro provides much useful information about Beccaria’s life, work, and relations with European intellectuals and statesmen, but his assessment of Beccaria’s ideas is unsophisticated and his narrative tends towards hagiography.

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