Saturday, 25 October 2014

Morality 15: Purposes of Punishment - Secular Views

Higher RMPS Podcast
Purposes of Punishment - Secular Views

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Secular Views on the Purposes of Punishment

Remember that both Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics are both secular, non-religious, viewpoints.  We can consider how both moral theories would view the purposes of punishment.


In Utilitarianism right is whatever brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people.  The GHP is the foundation of all moral decisions in Utilitarianism.  Whether protection, deterrence, retribution, and reformation are morally right or wrong depends on how much happiness the produce.

Utilitarian View on Protection
How would a Utilitarian respond to protection as a purpose of punishment?  Protection involves locking the criminal up in a prison.  The first thing to check is who would be happy by this and who would feel pain as a result.  The victim and/or their family would, we assume, be happy by the guilty party being locked up for what they’ve done.  Society is overwhelmingly in favour of locking up the guilty so they too would be happy with this.  The criminal and the criminals family would feel pain; however, when weight up against the happiness of the victim, their family, and society we can see that the GHP supports the use of Protection as a purpose of punishment.  Interestingly even if the criminal is wrongly accused the happiness of the masses still takes priority.

Utilitarian View on Retribution
Retribution follows a similar line of thought; however, it becomes more complex when we consider society’s views.  Again the victim and/or their family would, we assume, be happy by taking revenge on the person who has wronged them.  Again, the criminal would feel pain, most likely literally, by society taking revenge on them.  However, how would society feel?  Generally people are in favour of retribution as it is seen as balancing justice.  However, Rule utilitarian’s consider happiness in the long-term; would we as a society be okay with an eye for an eye becoming the basis for law?  Whenever you are wronged you have the right to rise up and seek vengeance?  What might our society become in the long-term?  It becomes difficult to calculate happiness here therefore all we can say is that a utilitarian would be in favour of retribution as long as it produced a net happiness.

Kantian Ethics

Kantian Ethics does not consider the consequences, only the action and the motivation for doing it.  Whether protection, deterrence, retribution, and reformation are morally right or wrong depends if the maxim for each passes the categorical imperative test of universality and whether it uses anyone as a means to an end.

Kantian Ethics View on Deterrence
The maxim, a moral law, for Deterrence would be something like “punish criminals harshly so no one will do it again”.  If this maxim passes the categorical imperative test then deterrence would be morally acceptable in Kantian Ethics.  Can this maxim be universalised?  Well, yes.  Everyone, everywhere would be able to enact this maxim.  They may not wish to, they may be too squeamish to do what needs to be done, but they could do it.  So the maxim passes the first test.  However, does it respect the person and not use them as a means to an end?  No, it doesn’t; deterrence is using someone to make a point, to make an example of them to try and dissuade others from doing something similar.  Therefore Kantian Ethics would be against Deterrence as a purpose of punishment.

Kantian Ethics View on Reformation
Reformation, helping someone to improve their life and contribute to society, is different.  For reformation a suitable maxim would be “help criminals improve themselves so they don’t make the same mistakes”.  If this passes the categorical imperative test then we are compelled to do it.  First we ask if the maxim can be universalised.  Can everyone, everywhere help criminals improve their lives.  Again, they may not want to because how they view criminals but still they could.  So this passes the first test.  Then we ask if the maxim respects the person and doesn’t use them as a means to an end.  In fact it does.  This purpose of punishment is actually as Kant intended, that the person is an end in themselves and a focus of your good-will.  You will find that all other purposes use people to fulfil its purpose whereas reformation is the only purpose of punishment that Kantian Ethics is in favour of.

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