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  1. Anthony Ellis

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee167

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Ellis, A. 2013. Deterrence. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


To deter is to discourage an action, or inaction, by threatening, or warning of, retaliation in the event of noncompliance – as in, say, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” Deterrence should be distinguished from prevention, since a deterrent threat typically does not actually prevent the agent from carrying out the action. (However, deterrence is often listed as one of the ways in which punishment contributes to “crime prevention.”) Deterrence is often said to work by instilling fear, but this is true in only the most general sense; one may wish to avoid a disbenefit without, in the strict sense, fearing it. It is therefore multiply inaccurate to say “Deterrence is the straightforward, commonsense notion that if you do something wrong, you will be punished, and the punishment will prevent you from doing that wrong thing again. According to this notion, fear of a future punishment dictates the actions people choose” (Levinson 2002: 512). The words “prevent,” “fear,” and “dictate” are quite misleading, as are the ideas that punishment, as opposed to the threat of punishment, can deter and that it can work only after one has first been punished.


  • ethics;
  • legal and political;
  • punishment;
  • war and conflict