There are those who dismiss the very concept of punishment as barbaric and should be outlawed. Perhaps they are right but it isn’t a topic I’m interested in at this moment.
I’d like also, for now, to bracket out discussion about “who has the right?” to punish. The question merits sustained discussion, of course, but it would take us to places beyond where I wish to go at present.
I wish to reflect a little on punishment. The subject soon goes beyond my competence but I wish to express what seems straightforward to most of us who have given the matter some thought. The reader will soon know when the debate should begin. I’ll start this little piece by saying some of the things we should mean when we use the word “punishment” and then make some comments on the points listed.
1) Punishment is something meant to hurt or generate some sense of loss. It can’t be meant to be reward.
2) Punishment is something purposed. It can’t be an accident.
3) It is inflicted on someone thought to be guilty of some wrongdoing. It cannot be inflicted on someone known to be innocent.
4) It is carried out in response to wrong actually done. It cannot be a deterrent meant to keep an innocent someone from doing something wrong.
5) The one who punishes must not only purpose to inflict some form of hurt or loss he/she must mean it to be punishment or it isn’t punishment. This is a point distinct from point 2 above.
Supposing a child knowingly does something wrong and the parents see fit to punish him; it cannot be something that rewards him for his wrongdoing. That is, the parents must not intend the boy to understand it as reward. The boy might not experience it as loss, he might even be happy he has been sent to his room but he mustn’t think that’s what the parents had in mind. However the boy in fact experiences it, the parents must mean it to be an expression of their opposition to the deed. Parental intent is central here.
We hear complaints all the time about how punishment is carried out in the judicial system. The protesters think that those who are imprisoned are being rewarded rather than punished. This makes the point that punishment is supposed to generate some form of loss. Whether prisoners in fact experience incarceration as “a hurt” inflicted that is what it is supposed to be.
- Punishment cannot be an accident. A man steals a car, while driving off with it he hits an ice patch, goes off the road, wrecks the car and suffers a leg fracture and a dislocated shoulder. The police arrest him, he finally goes to court and his lawyer claims he has already been punished in that he was physically hurt.
Some people believe he was punished (say, by God) but that won’t do for our situation; it isn’t known that God punished him and it isn’t known that God punished him for that crime. Society can only function on this basis: the man committed the crime and society must deal with him and “dealing” with him will have to take some penal form. Punishment is not the same as suffering!!!!!
- Punishment can only be inflicted on someone thought to be guilty of some wrongdoing. It may be the case that the one punished is in fact innocent but he is not thought to be innocent otherwise punishment isn’t punishment it is some form of injustice. Punishment can only be carried out on the guilty if the word is to retain its rightful meaning.
We do not punish a paramedic for inflicting pain and suffering on the victim of an accident. The victim will no doubt scream when the medic carries out some extreme life-saving act but we don’t think of him as doing wrong when it’s clear he does what he does to save their life. It’s true there may be occasions when the medic is thought to have done wrong but putting the best face on the analogy we know that there’s a difference between inflicting pain for a good cause and doing wrong.
- Punishment can only be inflicted on someone guilty of an actual wrong. Punishment is only just in the presence of actual guilt therefore it cannot be used as a deterrent. It may be used to deter the wrongdoer from further wrongdoing but he must have already committed a wrong for which he is punished. We may wish his punishment to act as a deterrent on others but punishment can only be justly inflicted for a crime actually committed. If we decide to subject someone to suffering that he might not do something wrong at a future date whatever else we are doing we cannot call it punishment. Trainee soldiers may be put through severe trials of numerous kinds to toughen them but where that is the case punishment is not what is happening.
We must not lay hold of a law-abiding citizen walking down the street and put him in jail or levy a fine as punishment to keep him from doing something wrong sometime in the future. We can’t deprive a young girl of her freedom by confining her to the house for a week (grounding) if she has done nothing to warrant such confinement. “What have I done?” she asks. The parents say, “You’ve done nothing wrong. We’re punishing you to keep you from doing wrong in the future.” Call the confinement what we will but if we call it punishment we are speaking in ignorance.
- The one inflicting punishment must intend it to be punishment. This is not the same point as point 2. The above can hardly be controversial but I suppose this claim warrants more prolonged reflection and debate.
Suppose a young man who is mentally ill takes to hitting people with whatever comes to hand. He has already quite seriously injured some of his friends. Those who work in this area will confer on the matter and let us imagine that they finally think it necessary to isolate the young man—at least to place him in care where he will not be a threat to other innocents.
Suppose further than this young man is anguished by his loss of freedom and doesn’t understand why he is so deprived. He thinks he is being treated unjustly, he’s being punished; he may not have the capacity to use the words or understand the concepts but he has the capacity to suffer and his experience of suffering has been laid on him by the authorities.
Those who put him in this place of confinement and special care know that punishment is not the appropriate word. But more than that, they feel no desire to punish—not only do they reject the word, in this case they reject the concept. They feel only sadness for the young man and a commitment to those he has hurt and could hurt and if possible they hope to help “cure” the offender.
Though the young man experiences inflicted pain and loss it isn’t placed on him as punishment; there is no sense that he deserves it. I wish to make the point that to punish someone must in some sense be carried out with the intention to punish and because the one punished knowingly did the wrong.
It’s clear that one can punish another without vindictiveness or in a vengeful spirit but there’s more than that to be said. The word punish will always have its place in human society where there are standards and where those standards are knowingly broken and where for the protection of others the wrongdoer must be punished.
Nevertheless, it’s common knowledge that we forgive and forgive and forgive wrongs without punishing them, without feeling the need to punish or without wishing to punish. On these occasions we wish the wrong hadn’t been committed, we don’t approve of it but we don’t think in terms of punishing the transgressor.