When society determines that someone has committed a criminal act, it punishes him in what it deems to be a manner appropriate to the crime, such as by incarcerating, fining, or perhaps even executing him.  What is the purpose of such punishment?  One purpose is to try to prevent future instances of criminal behavior.  A punishment is intended to effect this in one or more of at least three ways:
✔     On the supposition that the perpetrator is likely to commit further crimes, he is imprisoned or otherwise separated from society so that he cannot do so.
✔     Efforts are made to rehabilitate the perpetrator so that he will “mend his ways” and lose his motivation to act criminally.  This is done, for example, by requiring him to engage in activities, such as community service, thought to foster socially acceptable attitudes or by offering him educational opportunities while in prison.
✔     All forms of punishment are intended to deter, not only the perpetrator, but also other potential criminals from committing future crimes.  To this end punishments are chosen to be unpleasant (long prison sentences, expensive fines, execution), so that the fear of undergoing punishment overrides whatever motivations may lead to criminal behavior.
       Another purpose of punishment is to provide restitution to the victims of crimes.  This may involve requiring the perpetrator to make monetary payment to cover costs or losses incurred by his victims.  In some jurisdictions there are funds, supported at least in part by fines that are collected, from which the government doles out compensation.  In addition, victims may sue the perpetrator for damages.
       A serious difficulty with all this is that the relevant sciences — sociology and psychology — are insufficiently developed to be able to provide society with fully reliable guidance for choosing among alternative punishments.  Even more serious is that public opinion and consequently the decisions of government officials often ignore the modicum of science that is available.  So we too frequently encounter examples of excessively light or excessively heavy sentences and of unreasonably high or unreasonably low monetary rewards.  While it is true that this constitutes just another illustration of the imperfections of the political and judicial processes, the situation is aggravated by the presence in many persons’ minds of another reason for inflicting punishment: vengeance.
       It seems that most people — and I do not exclude myself — get considerable emotional satisfaction when a person who has made someone else suffer is in turn made to suffer.  When Dirty Harry (played by Clint Eastwood) suckers a molester and murderer of a child into making a hostile move and then, with just a hint of a smile, blows him away, the movie audience feels the satisfaction of justice having been done — even though the legal processes of trial, conviction, and sentencing have been preempted.  The widespread desire to experience such feelings of satisfaction in regard to punishments meted out in real life tends to make sentences harsher than may be appropriate.
       Pushing in the opposite direction are feelings of concern for the perpetrator:  Perhaps his antisocial behavior can be attributed to a childhood afflicted by poverty, discrimination, or domestic strife, or perhaps he is mentally ill; if so, his punishment should be either reduced or eliminated.  One sees here the arguments about free will in a practical setting:  Should we punish people for acting according to decision mechanisms that they have developed in response to circumstances not entirely under their control?
       My present view of how to deal with this conundrum is this:  Forget vengeance and limit punishments to what is appropriate for preventing further crime and compensating victims.  If this is done in accord with scientific findings about which methods are effective, then the punishments should reflect the perpetrators’ circumstances; for example, crimes arising from mental illness would be curtailed through the use of medication and psychotherapy.  Since the relevant science is not fully developed, mistakes no doubt will be made, but at least society would be trying its best to do the right thing.  Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect that those who commit the most odious crimes would receive the severest punishments.  Admittedly, however, this would not always happen, in which case society would be denied the satisfaction of adequate vengeance.  Speaking for myself, this would be more than offset by the satisfaction of knowing that a rational policy for punishment is in place.
       I next shall turn to other topics, not all of them philosophical.
February 15, 2010
J.Flench Click to start at series beginning with Jethro Flench © 2007-2010.  The views on this web site are opinions.  We reserve the right to exercise our First Amendment rights while we still have them.