Saturday, 25 October 2014

Morality 14: Purposes of Punishment - Religious Views

Higher RMPS Podcast
Purposes of Punishment - Religious Views

This is available as an MP3 or to download as a podcast through iTunes
for Desktop and Apple devices, as well as PodcastHD for Android Devices.

Religious Views on the Purposes of Punishment


Christians use the bible and their religious leaders for guidance on moral issues.  How would they respond to the purposes of punishment?  Some they would comment on but some there would be nothing specific they could say.  The difficulty is in the size of Christianity and the diversity of the texts they use to understand what to do.

Christian View on Reformation
Forgiveness and reform are at the centre of the Christian response to suffering.  In the New Testament Mary Magdalene was accused of adultery and, according to Jewish law, she should be punished by death.  Jesus had been asked by her accusers to act as a Judge.  Jesus challenged them saying: ‘let he without sin cast the first stone’.  Jesus was saying that we all have sinned so who are we to judge anyone?  Jesus helped the woman.  Therefore some Christians would support reformation as the bible teaches forgiveness and to help those in need.  Christians see Christ as an example by which to live their lives.

Christian View on Retribution
This is one of the most conflicting elements in Christian morality.  Should we take revenge on those who have wrong us?  In the bible God clearly punishes the guilty for breaking his laws, so why can’t we?  The Old Testament teaches Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’, therefore some Christians will support retribution as a form of punishment.

However, Jesus also taught forgiveness.  If someone wrongs you, forgive them for what they have done.  This is why Christians can both support but refuse retribution.  Which one do they follow?  Both are from their sacred writings but they give a contradictory position.  Christians must therefore use reason to decide how to act when deciding how and why to punish.


Buddhists use the Dhamma, which is the teachings of the Buddha, to guide their lives.  Living in the Sangha they also help each other to live a good life.  Thei r teaching are relatively easy to understand in how to live a good life.  The basis of Buddhist morality is the Noble Eight-Fold Path which includes right action and right intention, both important in deciding the purpose of punishing criminals.

Buddhist View on Reformation
The main attitude to punishment in Buddhism, is one of reform and rehabilitation.  Buddhists believe in extending compassion (karuna) and loving-kindness (metta) to all living beings and part of this is helping offenders to see the error of their ways.  In the UK, the Buddhist prison chaplaincy has been working for over 25 years to help offenders to reform through the teachings of Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness.  Many Buddhists use the story of Milarepa to show the importance of reform.  Milarepa killed 35 people as a young man, but he turned to the Dhamma and became a great religious guru.  By helping others you would gain positive Kamma helping them on the path to Nibbana.

Buddhist View on Retribution
Buddhists believe that all of our actions create kamma.  Our kamma determines both our Samsaric rebirth as well as leading the way to Nibbana.  The first of the Five Precepts is to not kill another human being.  Revenge is an unskilful action rooted in anger and ignorance.  Revenge for the simple reason of getting your own back violates every tenant of Buddhism.  The Buddha is the embodiment of compassion and Buddhist look to the Buddha’s life as an example of how to live.

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