Theories of Punishment

by trikyphilosophy

Should someone be punished based on the wants of society, or the injustices that he or she committed? Do we punish people according to what the people want, or what is right?

The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James and Stuart Rachels says, “Punishment, by its nature, always involves inflicting some harm on the persons punished.” (Rachels, 139) It continues on to state that society punishes people by making them pay fines or go to prison or sometimes by killing them, and then the authors ask how it can be right to treat people that way. Many people would respond with the phrase “an eye for an eye.” Punishment is seen as a way of paying back the offender for committing the crime in the first place.

There are two main views on punishment: Utilitarian, which believes that punishment is right so long as it does enough good to outweigh the bad, and Retributivism, which argues that people should be punished, no matter the happiness of parties involved, simply because they committed a crime, and that the punishment should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

Utilitarianism claims that it is our duty to do whatever will increase the amount of happiness in the world. If that is our duty, then punishment would be considered “evil.” No child is happy to stand in the corner, no employee is happy to be scolded, no criminal is happy to go to jail for his crimes. However, Utilitarians backtrack to say instead that punishment is right, so long as it does enough good to outweigh the bad. The criminal may not be happy with the decision to lock him away, however the victims that he wronged will be, and that is the good that outweighs the bad.

The prison reform of the 1950s and the 1960s was a purely Utilitarianism approach to rehabilitating the criminals so they would be fit to better society once they were released. However, all of that changed in the 1970s when the “war on drugs” led to longer and longer prison sentences for drug offenders. This change was more retributive than utilitarian in nature, and hinted at victory for Retributivism.

Kant despised Utilitarianism because “the theory is incompatible with human dignity. In the first place, it has us calculating how to use people as means to our ends. If we imprison the criminal in order to keep society safe, we are merely using him for the benefit of others.” (Rachels, 142) kant also believed that rehabilitation was really just the attempt to mold people into the beings that we wanted them to be.

Kant argues that there are two principles that punished should be governed by, the first being that if a criminal is to be punished, he or she should be punished because they have committed a crime and for no other reason. The second principle is that the punishment should relate to the crime; for example, if someone committed a small crime, they should receive a small punishment. This second principle allows Kant to support capital punishment. A Kantian, on deciding whether or not to support capital punishment, must balance the injustice of the occasional mistake against the injustice of letting murderers live.

The question that was asked, a year ago in my Ethics class, was “Do you see any way to bring these conflicting principles or theories of punishment into harmony?” Personally, I do not. Kantian theories of punishment seem to be more reasonable, while Utilitarian theories seem to be based on community-wide beliefs and wants. Utilitarianism claims that it is our duty to do whatever will increase the amount of happiness in the world, and that locking away a criminal would be such an act. However, Kant argues that by punishing a criminal simply because the public wants them punished is a form of using a person as a means to an end, that that that is morally wrong. Kant continues on to say that a criminal will be punished because he or she committed a crime, no more and no less, and that the punishment should fit the crime. Kant’s theory is rational and moral and there are simply too many differences between the two for them to be brought together in harmony.

Now, the question that I asked was, “Do we punish people according to what the people want, or what is right?”

I’m going to start this response off by saying that what people want is not always the same as what people need. If we punish criminals based on the wants of members of society, then a mother would want to keep her child out of prison and the criminal would go unpunished for his or her crimes. OR anyone suspected of being a criminal would be thrown in jail, simply because that was what society wanted. Is that right? No.

We punish those that break the law because they committed a crime, and for no other reason. If someone is guilty of breaking the law, then they deserve to be punished.

That’s my view on it anyway. What about you?

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