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Essay on Ethics and Punishment

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Essay on Ethics and Punishment

Societies in countries such as the United Kingdom and the U.S.A have been focused on retribution mainly because of the idea of lex talionis - “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” which has been influential for thousands of years and used in ancient law. In some Eastern countries, someone who stole would have had his hand cut off until recently because lex talionis has been taken so seriously. This focus on retribution has made the modern public of countries like the U.S.A want retaliation against criminals, which can be urged on and drastically increased by the media. Retribution is the idea that you should be punished for your wrongdoing, so that you know how badly you have acted. In a sense it is the idea that society can get revenge on the people who have done wrong and gone against the norms and laws. Retribution aims for the idea that “criminals must get their just desserts.” So, retributive justice attempts to ensure that the punishment fits the crime so if you have committed a murder, you are put into prison for longer than if you have stolen a book. Retribution can be effective for society because it can provide cleansing. This like the catharsis or cleansing which occurs at the end of a Greek tragedy where the audience feel relief and healing through their emotions in a response to the suffering of the play's characters. Not only can retribution provide cleansing, but it can also give a sense of closure and “enables life to go on as before.”

Most Christians would argue that retributive justice is not the right attitude to apply to criminals, they would urge for restorative justice as an alternative. Whereas retributive justice makes the prisoner the scapegoat because it exists to apportion blame, restorative justice focuses on the needs of the offender and the future. Restorative justice is the ideal that prisons do not solve the problems of the person who committed the crime; therefore instead of prison, a criminal should be nurtured back into his or her community and the punishment should be different. Gorringe argues for restorative justice and questions whether in retributive justice the punishment can ever truly fit the crime. Bianchi, the Dutch criminologist, takes the same viewpoint as Gorringe, arguing that putting someone in prison is indecent and unethical.

Restorative justice is becoming increasingly popular and increasingly used throughout the world. In European countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, there are part time prison sentences and courts are encouraged to rule for community service and punishments which involve reintegration into the community that offenders feel so separate from. In New Zealand, a system of restorative justice is in place. Restorative justice rests on the liberal idea of positive freedom, which is that humans have the capacity to be altruistic. Glimpses of restorative justice can be seen in the United Kingdom through trial by jury, which shows basic decency in everyday people and moral sense, electronic tagging, community rehabilitation orders and for example, flowers at the side of the road where there has been a car crash. Nevertheless, retributive justice is still the main form of justice and punishment in society today.

Deterrence is a popular reason for administering punishment. Deterrents linked to punishment are fear of being caught, fear of losing freedom in prison, fear of pain (for example the death penalty in America) and perhaps a fear of making your current situation even worse. However, many would argue that deterrence is not a satisfactory reason for punishment because it would seem that punishment does not have a significant effect on reducing crime. Exeter prison, for example, is warm in the winter, prisoners can gain qualifications and earn money, are given food and drink, have colour televisions in their cells and stereos to listen to the latest music on the radio. Nevertheless, they are allowed two visits a month and on some days are locked in their cells all day. When walking around, it becomes clear that all they hear if they have not got their televisions or stereos turned on is the opening, closing and locking of doors. It is arguable that the loss of freedom they have to endure and the knowledge that the people and things that they know in the outside world are continuing without them, is punishment enough.

Gorringe argues that there are two problems with the argument from deterrence. One is that harsh punishments do not deter crime; in fact Hoose notes that when the death penalty was abolished in Canada, there was not an increase in the amount of crimes committed. The other problem with deterrence, according to Kant and Gorringe is that the word deterrence implies frightening people into good behaviour.

Fear of being caught is an effective deterrent because of the feelings that come with it. For example, being arrested in public, driven in a police car, being read your rights, held in a cell and knowing that your family is worried about you or upset with your behaviour, is quite shameful. This would be enough to stop many people committing a crime because they would ask themselves the question - is it worth it? Furthermore, Hoose argues that in parts of the country where police are strained by the amount of criminal activity, people may be more willing to commit a crime because they know that they are less likely to be caught.

Nevertheless, most Christians would probably argue that deterrence is not an ethical reason for implementing punishment because it could mean sacrificing an innocent person's freedom in order to deter others from committing a similar crime and just because it works in a particular area does not mean it would work in others, nor does it make it right.

Other reasons for punishment include reformation so that the offender emerges from their punishment as a reformed character, willing to go back into his or her community and forget their bad actions in the past. Reform is an example of restorative justice because it involves restoring somebody to their community after they have been punished and it was a goal of the prison agency in 1993. Many believe that imprisonment is enough punishment and reform should be what prisons focus on. Exeter prison embodies an element of reform by allowing prisoners to get some education by attending classes if they so wish so that when they leave they have the beginnings of a qualification. In America, prisons are still called penitentiaries, which imply reform.

Hoose argues for the utilitarian perspective with regards to punishment, saying that if punishment is the most effective way to keep crime to a minimum then it will be supported by utilitarians who, as previously examined, would do what is right for the majority by the necessary means, including punishing someone. Utilitarians use deterrence as a justification for punishment, arguing that it can stop that person doing that crime, or another crime again. Furthermore, it may stop other people considering committing that crime from doing so if the punishment is enough to be a disincentive. Hoose continues, arguing, “If they are thorough in their application of the utilitarian principle, they will compare the effectiveness of various kinds of punishment.” I.e. - they should investigate which form of punishment will most effectively act as a deterrent and help the majority of people. So, if an alternative punishment to the death penalty is found to create a greater good for a greater number, or is found to be a more effective deterrent, then the death penalty is no longer acceptable in the eyes of the utilitarian. There are problems for the utiliatarians when it comes to deterrents, which Hoose highlights. If the utilitarian was concerned only with obtaining the greatest good for the greatest number then convicting somebody who was innocent, for example to please a gang who would murder innocent people if that person was not convicted, then a utilitarian may be tempted to do this. Hoose also argues that even if punishment as a deterrent is effective in one area, it is unlikely that it will be effective everywhere and therefore cannot justify all punishment.