A popular view in our culture is that people who do wrong should be punished as a matter of retribution. Retribution is holding a person responsible by treating them according to the standard they set for themselves in their wrong action. But then we don’t steal the car thief’s car, we sent him to prison. Prison seems like the more humane alternative to raping the rapist and you generally can’t defraud the fraudster who would be broke without his ill gotten gains. But prison is still pretty severe punishment since it not only costs the wrong doer a significant chunk of their life, but given the way we have set things up, a prison sentence grants the convicted very few realistic paths back into the social order.
I worry about retributive punishment. It frequently functions as a thin morally righteous veil over vengeful motives. In principle, retribution is treating the wrong doer the way he deserves to be treated. Retribution, in principle, is entirely about what is just for the wrongdoer. Revenge differs in that it is about the victims and evening the score. But in practice we get these things mixed up. And punishment is often enough about satisfying our sense of righteousness when we identify with the victims of crime. The desire for revenge, I think, is best understood as a fight or flight response after the fact. We are horrified at the evil act of the wrong doer and feel a powerful emotional impulse to hit back, even though there is no longer any ongoing fight.
The Russian/Armenian tile setter that did my bathroom several years ago commented in conversation that “When the fight is over, you stop swinging your arms.” Wise words, I think. My worry about retribution/revenge is that it mainly serves as an indulgence of our own cruel impulses. We have a whole media machinery set up to whip up our outrage at the wrong doings of fellow citizens (it’s called the local TV news). And politicians are quick to capitalize on our fear of crime with get tough on crime measures. But getting tough on crime doesn’t bring crime down, it only sates our lust for vengeance. Crime statistics since the crime ridden 70s show clearly that dramatic reductions in crime are not correlated with “get tough” measures. Crime has fallen years ahead of “get tough” measures in many places and crime has remained intransigent in other places that have gotten tough. One of the leading hypotheses in the ongoing mystery concerning why crime has fallen so dramatically since the 70s it that it’s a salutary effect of removing lead from paint.
We have an immediate sense of our freedom to make choices and a deep sense that people should be held accountable for these. But we also know full well that our choices are influenced in ways we don’t always appreciate. The choices we make, for instance, are heavily influenced by the options we see as open to us. Consider that crime rates overall among black men are higher than among white men, but crime rates among employed black men are about the same as crime rates among employed white men. Unemployment does predispose people towards crime. Race doesn’t. Among the most significant aspects of systemic racism in America is racial disparity in pay and employment opportunities.
People with decent characters sometimes make bad choices. Punishing them won’t often make them into better people. Though it might make them into worse people. The cruel impulses that lay beneath the veils of retribution and “personal responsibility” do a great deal of damage in our society, and most often to people who have very little power to begin with.
My caution about the cruel impulse to punish is not an argument for letting dangerous evil doers go free with no consequences. There are other models for criminal justice that would be more effective at protecting society and cultivating more peaceable, responsible and productive citizens. One is the public health model. Society should be protected from dangerous individuals. But we can do this by treating dangerous criminals in the same manner we treat people with dangerous infectious diseases. Prison should be like quarantine, unpleasant when necessary, but making it unpleasant isn’t the point. There are ways to protect society from criminal danger that aren’t cruel. But indulging cruel impulses doesn’t do anyone any good.