Punishment

In a recent blog I quoted Tiger Wood’s statement that stroke penalties in golf for slow play were unacceptable because they would cost the players money. I want to pursue this a bit and talk about punishment in general. It does seem to me that the purpose of punishing someone for breaking the rules, or the law, is to make them want never to do that thing again. In golf, if players don’t want point penalties, then that would be an appropriate penalty precisely because they don’t want it: it would deter them from playing slowly. If we levied a penalty the players thought acceptable, it wouldn’t be effective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a penalty at all. I sometimes wonder how Tiger ever got admitted to Stanford!

In any case, it raises the question of what punishment is all about. Thomas More, in his remarkable book Utopia, thought punishment ought to improve people, make them better. In our culture, historically, we have operated on the principle of deterrence: punishment ought to deter future undesirable behavior. But we apply this principle in strange ways. If a man robs a bank at gun point, we “put him away” for a few years. It is supposed to keep him from robbing banks in the future — not only while he is in jail. But we know this doesn’t really work, and the culprit is often robbing again once he is back on the streets — having learned new tricks while in jail, no doubt. The principle itself is strange anyway: years in prison for taking money that doesn’t belong to him. It’s the same punishment we dole out for a man who repeatedly beats his wife: doing time. In neither case does the punishment make much sense.

Don’t we like to say the punishment ought to “fit the crime”? Years in prison for beating one’s wife doesn’t seem to fit somehow. Perhaps we ought to put the man in a locked room with two or three other men and have him beaten up until he feels what his wife felt. This, in brief, is the principle Dante operated on in his Inferno: the punishment fits the crime. For example, usurers who were deeper in Hell than murderers since they commit a violent crime “against art, God’s grandchild” sit around a plain of burning hot sand with bags of coins strung around their necks forcing them to watch the bag through eternity — presumably waiting for it to grow larger. After all, that’s what usurers do: they lend money at interest and make the money grow without actually doing anything to earn the profits. At least that was the Church’s view at the time.

Dante, of course, never questioned the appropriateness of capital punishment. It was generally accepted by the church that one who commits murder forfeits his life and deserves to die at the hands of the state. Aquinas argued this in his Summa Theologica, insisting that those who murder are animals and ought to be treated as such themselves: it’s their choice. In principle I would agree, but as I have argued in a previous blog the flaw in the scheme is human fallibility. Jurors and even eye-witnesses make mistakes. If humans never made mistakes then capital punishment would be entirely appropriate. But we make mistakes more often than not, so it can, and does, lead to terrible blunders. Be that as it may, “doing time” is a strange way to punish a person for taking another person’s life, or for most of the acts we regard as criminal.

We aren’t very creative in thinking of appropriate ways to punish people, though I can think of one interesting counter-example. A judge in a township not far away from me fined a construction company $100,000 for bid-rigging — and insisted that the amount fined go to four regional universities to establish programs in business ethics. My university already had the program, so we used the money to start a lecture series and brought in some very interesting people who spoke to us about business and ethics. Now that was appropriate punishment, and a very constructive way to “make good” on a rotten situation.

But this example is certainly the exception. In general we like to think the punishment  ought to fit the crime; it ought to deter the criminal from further crime and, as Thomas More thought, ideally it ought to reform the criminal and make him a more useful member of society. This last element we seem to ignore for the most part in our desire to “get back” at the criminal. So in the final analysis, we punish people to make ourselves feel better, to relieve our own stress at the thought that the guy is “out there,” or to satisfy our own need for revenge. None of the lofty reasons we give for punishing people seems to hold water. So we settle for what makes us feel good.

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2 thoughts on “Punishment

  1. Great post as usual. A lot of food for thought. I have frequently thought that all the money we spend to incarcerate people would be much better spent on rehabilitation services. I know some people may need punishment, but so much crime has to do with addictions and mental health issues and basic poverty. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    • “Rehabilitation” is our weak attempt to follow Thomas More’s lead. But we don’t do it very well. This is not to say we couldn’t do a better job. In any case, I can’t see that the argument in favor of capital punishment carries any weight whatever in light of the blunders we frequently make as fallible human beings.

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