Punishment vs responsibility

Many people seem to think that if somebody is responsible for doing something bad, like murder, that legitimises punishing him – that is, harming him in a way that has nothing to do with self defence, defence of others, or defence of property. (I am using the word punishment to denote this idea. You can substitute another term for punishment if you would prefer other terminology.) The standard attitude is that people in prison are bad and so we should make them suffer because it is good for them to suffer. And so if people get raped in prison that’s just too bad.

But there is a problem with punishing somebody because he is responsible. If a person is responsible for something he did that means he could have chosen to do otherwise. He could have created knowledge about a better way to live and so avoided doing the bad thing he did. But if that’s true, why punish him? Why not help him to learn a better way of living and then let him get on with his life? Punishing a criminal won’t make the punisher better off except insofar as it satisfies a desire to hurt the criminal. Punishment won’t make the criminal more productive. Only better ideas about how to live could do that. So punishment is a dead end that benefits nobody.

There is also another problem. The criminal is responsible because he should have realised there are better ways of behaving and found out about them. The non-criminal ways of behaving would enable him to cooperate with other people for mutual benefit. So one principle that should have guided his actions is that he should have been looking for a way to cooperate with other people for mutual benefit. But that principle can’t be reconciled with punishment, which involves the punisher acting in a way that he knows can’t lead to mutual benefit.

A few disclaimers. I am not saying that prisons should be shut down, although they are to some extent devoted to punishment. Some of the people locked up in prison should be locked up to stop them from preying on others. Nor do I think we should necessarily go out of our way to make prison pleasant. But we should also not go out of our way to make prison horrible and destructive.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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