Punishment can be defined as “to cause someone who has done something wrong or committed a crime to suffer, by hurting them, forcing them to pay money, sending them to prison etc”. Punishment is a key topic in modern times, as it has been forever. Gorringe notes Kant's argument when he asserts that as members of society we involuntarily enter into a social contract with each other that binds society together and makes us act well and in the interest of others. He argues that crime is the breaking of this social contract and punishment is what is needed to return society to the normal “balance of laws by which we all live.” Law is clearly linked to punishment. John Locke said, “Where there is no law, there is no freedom.” Gorringe notes that Durkheim argued that in today's advanced societies law is taken for granted and we rarely question what it means. Gorringe says, “Law, as opposed to custom, is the public enactment of codes which have to be obeyed.” Consequently, we can deduce from this that punishment is enacted when the codes that have to be obeyed in society are broken. Criminals are punished judicially and it is the punishment of criminals that I will focus on in this essay. Of course, punishment can be distributed to children for example for being disobedient, but although on a much smaller scale, they are still breaking a law that has been set out for them by someone in authority, like a parent. I will discuss punishment in more detail further on.
Consequentialism states that the right action is the action which brings about the best consequences; in simple terms it encompasses the idea that the ends should justify the means and focuses on the right, not on the good. This argument has been criticized since its existence for a number of reasons I will look at in detail further on. Consequentialists distinguish between honouring and promoting a value. They argue that promoting a value is to maximise the value and bring about as much of it as possible, whereas honouring a value is embodying a value. For example, a man who was a “Fathers for Justice” campaigner promoted a value by being recognised but he did not honour that value because when he was granted the power to see his children, he did not. Therefore, consequentialism promotes a value you hold to be important but you do not have to honour it, whereas for a non-consequentialist, it is more important to honour the value.
Consequentialists seem to have divided themselves into two groups - act consequentialism and rule consequentialism. Brad Hooker in the Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory argues that “Act consequentialists believe that the moral rightness of an act depends entirely on whether the act's consequences are at least as good as that of any alternative act. Rule-consequentialists believe that the rightness of an act depends not on its own consequences, but rather on the consequences of a code of rules.”
The most well known form of consequentialism is utilitarianism which is “a blanket name used to describe a number of schools of thought. Adherents of act utilitarianism hold that one should choose that act from among those available which will produce or result in the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people…or (when evil cannot be avoided) one should choose that course of action which will result in the least amount of evil.” In other words, the most morally relevant consequences are happiness and the absence of pain. Jeremy Bentham was one of the most influential utilitarians and he developed the principle of utility, which is that the correct action is the action that brings about the greatest happiness to the greatest number. John Stuart Mill was Jeremy Bentham's student and he expanded utilitarianism. Gorringe says, “the consequentialist approach to ethics, which originated in the eighteenth century as a means of getting away from what were assumed to be the irrational dictates of religious commands, judges the morality or otherwise of an act by its effect on the bodily politic.”
John Stuart Mill defends Utilitarianism and argues that what is good, is happiness. John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism holds that consequentialism is not very radical and that it is a way of systematising our everyday moral principles. Mill addressed some of the critiques of Bentham's utilitarianism, such as the argument that “utilitarianism reduces all human ends to the base desire for pleasure, and he responds by acknowledging that there are different kinds of pleasure and some are more intrinsically valuable than others.” For example, he argued, “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Mill argued that intellectual pleasure is extremely fulfilling and that it grapples with what it is to be fully human. Mill believed that the principle of utility is important because humans do actually desire and seek out happiness so the greatest happiness should be the fundamental principle of morality. Lastly, Mill supported act utilitarianism, which states that an act should be assessed according to its utility over rule utilitarianism, which says that an act should be assessed according to rules, which have a utilitarian preference.
Situation Ethics is a branch of act utilitarianism, which was founded by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s. Christians generally find this type of utilitarianism more appealing because it argues that the fundamental principle of morality is love; “For Fletcher, Christian love meant that one should always act to maximise happiness for the greatest number.” This branch has not been particularly popular and most consequentialists avoid it.
Stated abstractly, consequentialism and utilitarianism is definitely very appealing because it is a very nice idea that you consider the consequences of your actions so that they are the best they can be; it would mean that you always act well. Nevertheless, the criticisms of consequentialism begin with the argument that it is hard to know sometimes what the consequences of an action are going to be. This criticism not only applies to short-term consequences of an action, but is even more relevant when assessing the long-term consequences of an action, which are very difficult to see sometimes. Also, consequentialism could allow some types of punishment, which many see as completely abhorrent, such as torture. If someone who knows the cure for cancer will not tell anybody what it is then a consequentialist may argue that torture is necessary - it is harming one person for the good of the many - the world. Consequentialists, therefore, are willing to do anything in principle, so long as it promotes a good consequence. Others may argue that consequentialism is too calculated because we cannot go through our lives thinking about the consequences of every action that we take and whether they will be good. With regards to utilitarianism, some argue that it is too demanding; it requires self- sacrifice to create happiness for as many people as possible. Furthermore, in seeking to promote utilitarianism, some worry that we will look after the needs of ourselves first and foremost.
Jeremy Bentham argues that utilitarianism is fit for pigs not humans because it doesn't apply to different types of happiness. Other critics argue that utilitarianism is like being hooked up to a “pleasure machine” because you are disengaging yourself from the real world. Bentham would argue that utilitarianism is not worth it because there can be intellectual and ethical fulfilment which is more fundamental than pleasant experience.
There are some principle problems to utilitarianism. For example, Bernard Williams suggested the problem of Jim and the Indians. This was that either Jim can kill one hostage or the Indians will kill all twenty. The problem is that utilitarianism does not differentiate between what you positively do and what arises from your failure to act. There is also the example of the judge and the mob, which is that a mob will riot and many people will die if a judge does not convict an innocent man of a crime he did not commit. If this is how society works then eventually there will just be the rule of the mob. Also, some special obligations may arise for family and for friends but a utilitarian will not be able to act on them because utilitarianism does not differentiate between people.
Some utilitarian replies may be that there are objective moral laws one should adhere if time is not at hand to weigh up the balances to choose a right decision and that utilitarianism should not be a decision procedure, it should simply aid reasoning, as utilitarianism is not the best way of justifying an action.