The Immorality of Punishment

Man in an electric chair.

Image via Wikipedia

I’m unlikely to read it, but it’s still nice to see that someone’s written a rigorous work of analytic philosophy that challenges the whole moral basis for punishment. Most public debate over prison reform and the death penalty seems to take it for granted that our criminal justice system exists, at least in part, to do some metaphysical balancing of the scales between wrongdoers and the wronged. The only question becomes the appropriate amount of suffering we should allow the state to mete out.

I call bullshit. The idea that any institution of men can accurately quantify the exact amount of pain another living being “deserves,” and then deliver just that, is utter nonsense. Punishment as a deterrent is a more complicated question (and also a partly empirical one), but punishment as some sort of cosmic manifestation of justice is a barbaric superstition.

I can’t see any good reason why it has to be this way. Remember Norway?

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3 Responses

  1. Have you ever read about Skinner, the behaviorist? He criticised punishment because, in his oppinion, it doesn’t work. It might stop a certain behavior to happen for some time, but in a long term basis, it’s ineffective. The whole punishment sisten sucks. A good example is the movie (that many people dislike) Clockwork Orange, wich is NOT about behaviorism, as many people believe, but Pavlovian conditioning, and makes a critic much like the one Skinner did about punishment.
    Maybe I’m just saying a bunch of bullshit, but I felt I could relate this post with something I knew…

    • Quentin Skinner? I didn’t know he was a behaviorist.

  2. Punishment is a difficult thing. With a system doing the punishing, the person who was wronged does not do the actual punishing. The person who will have to do the punishing really has nothing to do with it. Does that mean they will have to be punished in return? Because by agreeing to punish on another’s behalf surely opens up the punisher to be punished in turn? And the idea that threat of punishment is a deterrent, I think is defective. Often the idea of escaping the punishment is more of a catalyst than the threat of actual punishment. I live in a country where the middle income class is dwindling and there is a huge amount of poverty. Our jails aren’t too bad. And they are certainly better than many, many people’s homes. Being in prison is not such a bad thing for those people who have nothing. For those who cannot buy food for even a simple meal. For those who don’t have a house but a shack. For those who have no TV. For those who need medical help but have to travel miles with no money to pay for transport. In prison you don’t need to travel. Clearly. For those who need HIV medication and get it free and conveniently in jail. And for those with no clothes or shoes. OK, prison gear is not so stylish but still… So how can prison be a punishment? A bit of a quandary I think.

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