In most institutions there are sets of rules to maintain order and justice, and to dissuade people from committing acts harmful to others. The way this is generally done is through the threat of punishment.
This does not truly work to help people because it only serves as a deterrent, but not a solution as rehabilitation. People will be scared of doing what is considered a crime because they will not want the punishment, or if they suffer the punishment then they might not want to suffer it again. This is an extremely flawed system, as it maintains order and security through fear. Fear is not a tool that leaders should use as it is immoral and worsens the lives of those in the system. Fear might be effective in certain situations, however it is false that it is generally more effective than a system that does not rely on it. Except when it is demonstrable that the worse life conditions induced by fear are better than the alternative (such as rampant violence), fear remains a tool used by dictators to ensure blind compliance to avoid the people doing what they should do, which is to depose said dictator.
It is not only fear that makes punishments immoral, but the very nature of punishment itself. Punishment is essentially a Hammurabi’s Code style of justice, where one bad deed is seen to deserve another. This makes no sense, as it is doing exactly what the perpetrator has done. It claims to be different than the people who commit crimes yet without any real justification as to what that difference is, other than some arbitrary and meaningless point such as that they are the ones in charge. Another reason might be the excuse that they need to do so as a deterrent, but as stated before this remains an immoral action only justified when the alternative is worse. Hurting someone in the name of justice is illogical, and does not restore justice as if it were a scale to balance. If you think someone deserves to be punished because they broke a rule or did something bad, then the person who punishes them would also deserve to be punished as they did something bad, if one were to have consistency in this flawed theory of justice. Wishing pain onto others for whatever reason is malicious and immoral. [Link Malice]
Finally, punishment does not do what justice really calls for, which is to rehabilitate the criminal. Criminals who do immoral things need to be shown that what they are doing is wrong so that they do not do it again, thus helping he criminal and everyone else.
Assumptions and Counter Examples
This final point brings up an important assumption we sometimes make though:
- The people who break the rules do so because they think they do not care about following the rules and need to be taught to follow them.
- They do not care about morality or others and do not know or care that it is immoral.
- They will continue to break the rules if not scared or imprisoned.
There are several counter examples to this. If someone does not want to steal, but they have been fired and cannot find work, and need to feed their family, then they might resort to stealing because in such a case the immorality of theft is outweighed by the morality of keeping people alive. In this case the criminal is not immoral and does not want to break the rules. In fact, the criminal will likely not ever repeat the crime if their state of poverty is alleviated.
Letter of the Law
This brings up another fundamental issue with punishment, that it assumes the rules of a system absolutely need to be upheld. This assumes that the rules are good to begin with, or if it doesn’t assume that then it may be putting too much emphasis on maintaining order through not allowing exceptions to the rules. Morality must always come before arbitrary sets of rules that may be flawed in their conception or application. To say that following the rules is more important than doing what is morally right is extremely arbitrarily amoral and harmful to people who suffer injustices because of a system that needs to be fixed. To say that allowing exceptions to rules will cause the system to fall apart is a slippery slope fallacy. It is true that corruption may be facilitated by a system that allows exceptions, but the opposite is a bureaucratic, amoral system, and in both cases there is injustice and suffering. Corrupt leaders can also use strict laws in their favour, especially if the strict laws are not properly formulated. Strictness in rules allow for loopholes to be used legally, and for unfair circumstances and outdated laws to be misused if it benefits the corrupt leader. Leniency and reason must be applied in legal systems, otherwise the system fails itself as being unjust.
There is no issue with breaking an unjust law if the reasons for doing it are morally justified. Punishing such a person will not deter them from doing it again, as long as they choose to act in the best way possible they will and should always do what is morally best rather than what is legal. In this case wanting them to change their ways is immoral, and punishing them is pointless and pointlessly harmful to them. This of course needs to be determined on a case by case basis as some people will break the law for reasons they think are moral, but may not be. However, even someone who is wrong but thinks they are justified will not change their mind simply by being punished.
Punishment to force compliance
Wanting such people to change their mind through punishment is imposing your own ideas onto them. If they do not agree with the law then a punishment is simply a way to force them to comply. As the point of a legal justice system is to maintain justice, it should be rehabilitation that criminals should receive. Rehabilitation though is only applicable to people who are harmful to others, not to people who do not comply. We should not try to eliminate differences in opinion, or to force compliance or obedience. This is simply a form of oppression and thus is itself immoral. When there are meaningful differences in what the rules should be, then there needs to be dialogue to determine if the laws should be changed.
What we need instead of punishments is to teach people -why- things are immoral. That is what rehabilitation should do in justice systems, and if that is not possible then detainment or exile might be needed to ensure that such people do not harm others, if that is seen as necessary. What I propose here is not a specific solution on how to make justice systems better, as there are always tactical, logistic, and other factors to take into account. Instead, I hope to explain and show that there is a serious issue with such systems, and when we make such a system, even if it is a parent determining how to raise their child, we should avoid these mistakes. What is the point of punishing a child, if all that does it make them scared of what you might do to them, and obedient and compliant to follow orders they are given, instead of thinking for themselves?
Punishment is a way to hurt people, terrorise them, or make them obey a system that might be broken to begin with, making it immoral. Breaking the rules in this type of system might even be morally better.