Punishment & Consequence


In my opinion, punishment is one of the most misguided and depraved of human notions. The iniquity comes not as much from the act of punishment itself as from the entire principle behind it: the intention to proliferate suffering as just restitution for trespasses. This is a corrupt form of justice. Evil in exchange for evil can never be justified. To cause suffering with the intention of causing suffering is unconditionally wrong. This is exactly what the action of punishment is; therefore, punishment is necessarily sinful.

However, there are further elements to the nature and function of punishment that are not sinful, but actually essential and desirable in current human society. Punishment serves three main functions. The first function is to cause suffering for the sole sake of sewing pain as part of an insane eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. An example would be chopping off a woman’s hand, the hand that she used to press a steam iron against a child’s face, because “she deserved it” for the misdeed she committed. This is evil, unnecessary, and entirely without benefit. The second function is to discourage unwanted behavior through the use of negative incentives (disincentives). A good example is imposing a $50 fine for littering. This is useful. The third function, which is related to the second function, is to perform the actions necessary to preserve justice and promote happiness and progress. This will require a more lengthy explanation, but a fitting example would be a gangster who, for the crime of killing a man in a shootout, is sentenced to 20 years hard labor in a penitentiary for the treble purpose of protecting society from his dangerous behaviors, forcing him to pay back his debt to society through labor, and giving him a compelling reason to change his ways (through 20 years of disincentives).

You must realize that nowhere in the sentencing of the gangster given in the above example was there the intent to cause him pain simply because he had caused others pain. There was no “he deserved to suffer for the suffering that he caused.” This will be a very difficult concept for most people to grasp because we are all raised with the (somewhat religious) conception that the very foundation of “justice” is one of bartering pain for pain, suffering for suffering. Society really inculcates the ideal that people deserve wrongdoing for their wrongdoings; in fact, we are taught that morality is like a balance where two wrongs do in fact even out and make things right. U.S. citizens pride the heartland for its “Texas Justice” and celebrate the cobra-sting of “bad guys” getting what’s coming to them.

But it is not correct for humans to say who is “good” and who is “bad” or who deserves pain and who deserves pleasure. We are all mutually praiseworthy and reprehensible, two qualities that are naively human to begin with. After all, if you allow me to speak for a moment about a very general notion of God or The Cosmos or a Higher Power or whatever, it is not for us humans to punish others for anything. That is trying to play God. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Who are we to say who deserves to suffer? Our collective goal in life should be to end human suffering, not to dish it out evenly. No person nor any collective human entity (such as a nation or a tribunal) has the authority to decide who deserves to suffer, or why, or how much—not for any reason, no matter the crime. It is NEVER right to desire or endeavor to create pain (not in others, and not even in yourself, in my personal opinion). Only God, if you believe in such a nebulous thing, can say who should suffer and why—if there even is any reason. It’s not for this article to debate the nature of morality or divinity; it is only to make clear that it is not human privilege to apportion punishment, and any attempt to do so is presumptuously inappropriate.

As an alternative, I propose that we think about administering justice as a system of consequences by retaining the best functions of punishment (the second and third functions listed) and letting go of the wanton first function. In the world we live in, every action has a consequence; it is simply a natural law of our universe, neither good nor bad. When you play with fire and get burned, there is no judicial arbiter in the sky who punishes you because you “deserved it;” it’s just cause and effect. When a reckless speed racer hits a hidden patch of gravel on a mountain pass and slips off the road, plummeting to his death, it is merely the outcome of the risk he took. This impartial balance of action and consequence is how we should model our justice system. Of course, life is not intrinsically fair (because “fairness” is a human standard that doesn’t apply to the universe) so this is why judicature is needed.

The task of the judicial system is do what is best for society; this why laws exist; this is the purpose of enforcing those laws. In an effort to maintain justice and serve humanity, consequences must be laid out for legal infractions. The following, while not meant to be comprehensive, is a listing of some of the primary requirements that those consequences must meet:

  1. An entity which poses a significant threat to society must be removed from society and isolated until deemed to be fit for reintegration. There may be varying levels of isolation, and similar offenders might be grouped together, depending on the circumstances and considerations of safety and justice. There is no reason that a serious offender should not still be able to live a meaningful and fulfilling, albeit confined, life. A convict can still contribute to society in many ways, including labor, creative output, programs to discourage youth from pursuing crime, and other constructive endeavors.
  2. An entity that commits a crime against society must temporarily forfeit some of the benefits and privileges of being a member of that society corresponding to the nature of the crime. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is because the laws exist to establish justice and equality, so to violate those laws is to create an unfair situation that is detrimental to society. To rectify this imbalance, it is only proper that certain liberties be taken away from the perpetrator that correlate to the freedoms that were deprived from society as a result of the crimes committed. In other words, to bite the hand that feeds you means you will no longer get fed. For example, if you break the traffic laws then your license shall be revoked—because by breaking those laws, you denied other drivers on the road the right to safety. The second reason is that relinquishing benefits of living in society will provide a strong deterrent against breaking the law.
  3. An entity that causes harm to society must atone for their misdeed by making reparations for damages inflicted. This remuneration may come in any number of forms.
  4. When a law is broken, the offending entity must make suitable recompense for usurping the social order.
  5. All entities should be equal in the eyes of the law. Consequences should be fair and humanistic, and should be appropriate for discouraging lawlessness, taking into account the risk of danger to society inherent in the crime. Thus, a person could be allowed to incur a great many parking violations (because they are not particularly dangerous to anyone) but the violation of Driving while Under the Influence (of alcohol or other narcotic (DUI)) would be tolerated only a small number of times (because it is extremely dangerous to everyone).

There are many possible systems of dealing with crime and imposing consequences, but in the current state of society our ability to administer justice is limited; technology, politics, geography, economics—all present challenges. Since the most ideal justice solutions may not yet be possible, we must make due with what is currently feasible. Just as a final example, I’d like to suggest a possible method of criminal institutionalization that could be viable in the future. Imagine that there are minimally policed labor camps on Mars (or some other moon or planet or space outpost) that a convict can be sent to; the condition of the camp can even vary with the severity of the sentencing, similar to minimum versus maximum security prisons that we are already familiar with. In a Mars labor camp, there are no fences and hardly any guards (depending on the camp, perhaps). Labor is not compulsory, and convicts are not forcefully confined to any quarters or areas. The system will work as thus: in exchange for labor, each convict will receive rations of food, water, and all other necessary utilities to maintain decently comfortable living conditions. But if you don’t work, you don’t receive any rations. Since the camp is on Mars, it is not possible to survive without rations, and there is no possibility of escape because the only transportation and communication is managed governmentally. A convict is free go where he or she wishes, but there simply is nowhere to go. Convicts are free to do what they do choose, but without doing ample work they will not have sufficient provisions for survival. Medical facilities may be available on a need basis. Perhaps medicine will by amply provided; or perhaps a consequence of imprisonment is risk of illness without aid. Fights and other disturbances can be dealt with by a small number of guards or even droids. Again, some camps can be safer than others if need be so that small-time criminals are not forced to survive in proximity to hardcore convicts. Of course, there will be other correctional facilities for people who have special needs or circumstances.

The notion of extraterrestrial labor camps is useful in many ways. They would effectively separate criminals from society. They would allow criminals to work, thereby retaining their ability to contribute to society. They might be very cheap to build and maintain, since maintenance could largely be done by convicts themselves; however, they would only be economically practical far into the future. They would provide apt disincentive for crime, since life in such a camp might be difficult, dingy, and dangerous. And they might allow convicts to have a greater chance to live a meaningful and productive life. Remember, though many will object, I propose that there is no need to inflict suffering on convicts and intentionally “punish” them. Convicts simply need to be disconnected from society and the benefits that society offers.

Consequence instead of Punishment. Honestly, it will probably be more of a change of thinking than it will be a change of actual policy, though there will be some policy changes (however small) especially in some countries more than others (I’m thinking of places where public stoning and humiliation, especially of women, is lawful). The United Nations has a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is a good step in the right direction. The lesson to come away with from this article is that the injurious nature of punishment and the vindictive attitude behind it are both unnecessary and immoral. Instead, the malevolent aspect of justice can be excised and the system of just consequences can be promoted.

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5 Responses to Punishment & Consequence

  1. blakerivers says:

    Star Trek’s “Rura Penthe” prison is a fictional example:
    “Work well…and you will be treated well. Work badly…and you will die.”
    No need to be that extreme, but the general concept is interesting.

  2. M. Waverly says:

    It seems that you’ve argued, for the most part, for the U.S. justice system. You’ve argued against the system of some underdeveloped countries.

    Regarding the Mars bit, you might want to explain better how you reason for forced labor (slavery) as a just form of punishment.

    You jump, in the intro, from this and that is wrong to this and that is sinful. It’s delicate, but the two are not one and the same.

    • blakerivers says:

      While it’s not perfect, the U.S. justice system seems to work pretty well, so it’s worth supporting.

      What exactly the connotations of the term “slavery” are may vary. Historically, slavery is sometimes coupled with many dehumanizing aspects that would be absent from a Mars labor camp. Of course, already in the U.S. convicts have been responsible for manual labor works such as laying roads or making license plates. So long as conditions are not inhumane (which requires its own definition) penal labor makes a lot of sense.

      I suppose “morally depraved” and “sinful” can mean different things if you take religious texts to be the definition of sin. Otherwise, it’s just arguing synonyms.

  3. PhingPhing says:

    Wonderful story !!! This is a good for my experience ,thank you for your sharing.

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