Education / Ethics / Philosophy / Politics


From early childhood on we are used to the idea of punishment. It seems self-evident that criminals have to be punished. This idea is somehow deeply ingrained in the fabric of most cultures and it is hard-wired into most religions.

But is the necessity of punishment really inevitable? I don’t think so. I don’t expect many of you to follow me in this respect (although I have recently seen a blog entry going into the same direction, see, but I find the idea of punishment both irrational and cruel.

I see cruelty in the act of causing somebody to suffer. If that person caused suffering of others, I see no justification for causing suffering to that person in turn. Instead, it is just as wrong as the action of the criminal. Normally, people think punishment is necessary for determent, but I see no convincing evidence that this is necessary or effective. And I can think of no rational justification of revenge. Try to come up with a rational reason for it. The longer I have tried, the less I could find. Revenge is a destructive and aggressive and in the end a cruel emotion on the side of the victim of a crime. Allowing it does not make things better and brutalizes society. Channeling it in the form of organized legal punishment does not improve the situation of our society either. I think somebody who feels a desire for revenge is somebody in need of therapy. You might not share my opinion on this, but I cannot think of any rational justification for revenge. It seems totally irrational to me.

The question of punishment is sometimes tied to the question of free will. It is true that if free will does not exist, punishment is a disputable thing. Personally, I do not believe in free will, but I think the question of punishment is independent of the question of free will. Even if we have free will, I see no justification for punishment. These two questions should be looked at independently. Inflicting suffering in somebody, no matter what he or she has done, appears unacceptable and cruel to me. If somebody has free will and is responsible for what he or she is doing, that does not mean one has the right to treat him or her in a cruel way even if that person is a cruel person him/herself. Such a person belongs into treatment, not into prison.

I think instead of punishing people, society should instead do four things:

  • We must offer help to the victims of crime. Our society offers nearly nothing except for organized revenge in the form of punishment. This is paltry. It does not help anybody and it promotes a general attitude of cruelty. What is missing is counseling and therapy for the victims instead.
  • We must offer therapy and rehabilitation to the criminals. Our usual forms of punishment in many cases don’t better them but make them and their problems worse.
  • We must protect society from dangerous people. This might entail – though not necessarily and not in all cases – confining people in closed institutions (combined with therapy), but not in order to punish them. In extreme cases, such confinement must be life-long. But since its purpose would not be punishment, it must not be shaped according to the model of a prison but according to the model of a closed psychiatric ward.
  • We must do research on the real causes of crime and how to avoid it and implement evidence based policies based on such research. We  do not need emotional arguments and redneck prejudices.

My opinion is, we should do away with the institution of punishment as we have done away with the equally cruel institution of slavery that many people once also found normal and indispensable.

11 thoughts on “Punishment

  1. Big subject. Are you sure its even possible for a social creature to do away with punishment?

    BTW, could you add a “follow by email tab” (its in the widgets section)? I’d like to get email alerts of new posts.

    • I think a society without punishment is indeed possible. Some societies seem to have come close to that. I remember seeing a TV documentary (I don’t know if this is true and I don’t have a source about this that I can show you, just what I remember, but we could do some research in the libraries etcl) about some area in the Himalayas (was it Zanskar or Ladakh? I don’t remember exactly).
      They said that in that area, they had some historical records and that according to these, there had not been a single case of murder in the area for 700 years. They did not have a prison and people did not lock their doors. The worst thing happening there was that sometimes there where brawls between drunk people.
      The main thing seems to have been that they managed to stop growing as a society and an economy. They did that by sending “excess people” to Buddhist monasteries to become monks or nuns, so that the population did not grow. Another factor might be that in Buddhism greed is seen as something bad.
      The problem is that everybody else around them did not stop growing. The growing world economy also found that place. Eventually the government of India built a street into the region and outside influence started increasing.

      • The caveat is, Don’t over expand. Australian aborigines had an interesting take on punishment. They did not have a word for ‘possession’ or ownership’ which i find astonishing. It’s the crux of our societies, but not theirs. Now, there were an estimated 900 ‘nations’ when the Brits first settled but only 64 still intact before anyone bothered to actually make the first English-Aboriginal dictionary. Pretty depressing. 800+ cultures simply wiped from history. From this study came knowledge of their punishment. One form (for bad behaviour) which was shared between many different tribes (nations) was a sort of detention. the offender had to remain isolated from the clan. They weren’t banished completely, but it made survival bloody difficult before their sentence was up. For more serious offenses the elders held a court and if found guilty the offending party had to stand perfectly still while the victim threw a spear at him. From what i remember it was just one shot, hit or miss, but if they moved full banishment would be imposed… which was essentially a death sentence.

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  3. Of course the word ‘revenge’ automatically conjures up ideas of ‘anger’ and ’emotion’ and often those emotions can cloud rational decisions but I feel revenge is necessary to an extent in order to sustain justice. I mean if revenge is committed within a rational logical way can it not be used as justice. It seems if a person inflicts a certain amount of pain or suffering onto others there is some kind of unbalance in the fairness of the situation so inflicting punishment on them surely creates an equilibrium. I feel like the need for justice is self authenticating, it can’t be explained, but I think innately we all feel that justice is, of course, important.

  4. I agree with this writing. For me, it also goes back to a sort of “scapegoat” mechanism from society, although it has some distinctive differences. The “scapegoat” is supposedly “innocent”, whereas when speaking about this kind of punishment, one is assuming the person has been indeed “cruel” and “deserves” the “punishment” (the scapegoat could be dead by now). There have been people who are in death row right now who have been known to have intellectual disabilities, yet, a jury decided they deserved capital punishment. Most often than not, the “correctional” system is proof of failed governments and societies.

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