Posted by: George | May 18, 2010

Crime and Punishment

Call me a bleeding heart liberal, but I think people have lost track of what purpose sanctions serve. I start with the assumption that the purpose of life is to learn some lessons and that rules are put in place to ensure an optimal learning environment. From this follow basic things like don’t hurt others or steal because that upsets that very optimality. People learn best by doing, and it’s quite natural for people to do the wrong thing at least once before they learn. But if the punishment for a particular wrongdoing is so severe that it precludes the possibility of the same situation’s arising in the future, then the punishment is too severe, and all the person has learned is that the world sucks.

Let me give an example from the touchy issue of academic honesty. Cheating in school is considered such a serious violation that it is grounds for suspension or outright expulsion. Once that appears on one’s record, one will never again be able to return to the same level of trust that one enjoyed in the past. A one-time cheater will have a much harder time getting into higher education, and it will affect the rest of his/her life. Thus, that person will never be presented with the option of applying the lesson learned – namely that cheating has awful consequences. A second chance is crucial to learning. You stick your hand in the fire and learn that it hurts – you remember not to do it again should the opportunity present itself. But if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, the lesson is effectively lost. It will never serve a purpose.

What do you think?



  1. I see four purposes to sanctions. You correct someone’s beliefs so they don’t want to commit their offense again; you deter others from emulating that behavior; you prevent someone from continuing their current actions by limiting their options (e.g., locking them in jail), and you provide recompense to victims (even if the recompense is simply the emotional salve of knowing justice was done).

    I agree that many crimes and/or misdeeds in the US have associated sanctions which are miserably chosen if the sole goal is correction.

  2. I’d add that MM’s “four purposes to sanctions” are purposes even on the assumption that the purpose of life is to learn some lessons. The corrective function teaches someone a lesson; the deterrence and preventative functions stop others from preventing the number of lessons learned from being maximized; and the compensatory function teaches the lesson that ours is a morally-balanced universe (or, alternatively, teaches the self-fulfilling expectation that it is).

    To extrapolate from MM’s conditional lament, none of this means that any of these functions is deployed properly; just that there is room for them all even granting your assumption about life’s purpose.

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