Essay: Punishment Western Society Has Developed

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Western society has developed in such a way that today, rules and laws exist to ensure that every person in the free and democratic world can enjoy the rights provided by such a world. Hence, if these rules and laws are broken, one might surmise that those affected are victimized to the extent that their rights as free citizens of the democratic world are violated, or disregarded at the very least. Even "victimless" crimes such as prostitution or gaming can arguably be claimed to have society as a whole as victim. Either way, punishments exist as a response to criminal activity. Many theories of crime and punishment have come into existence in an attempt to determine the best and most appropriate forms of response to criminal activity of various degrees of severity. Some of these focus on the future effects of the response, such as deterring future criminal activities, lowering the crime rate, or restituting the victim. Others, like the retributive justice theory favored by philosophers like Emmanuel Kant, focus on the past, in terms of responding to criminal action that has already taken place. In my view, this is the most appropriate type of response to criminal activity, since it is both direct, simple, and appropriate.

As mentioned above, the philosopher Emmanuel Kant favors retributive justice. This form of justice matches the type of punishment to the severity of the crime committed. Hence, more severe crimes warrant a more severe type of punishment. To accomplish this in the most effective way, retribution functions in a non-personal and procedural way. No feelings are involved, no pleasure is derived from the punishment, and it is therefore not equal to revenge.

One of the principles in the punishment procedure is proportionality. The level of punishment, as mentioned, is scaled according to the crime committed. This has created historical disagreements among retributivists in terms of the relative harshness of the system. Nevertheless, principles generally used to determine the severity of the crime include the amount of harm or other unfair effect created by the crime.

From the criminal point-of-view, a person who has chosen to commit a crime forfeits the right to remain unharmed. Hence, by choosing to commit the crime, the criminal is aware that he or she runs the risk of punishment. One might therefore say that the choice had a direct result, which is punishment.

At the same time, the choice of law-abiding citizens to lead crime free lives has the direct result of continued life without fear or risk of punishmen, with their rights fully intact. In other words, retributive justice simply means that certain choices have certain consequences. Crimes have the consequence of punishment, while the choice not to commit crime results in continued freedom.

During the 19th century, Kant offered his views in Metaphysics of Morals, in which his main claim is the same as that of retributive justice today: That punishment should be based on retribution alone. No other principle is to function as part of the punishment process. To justify his view, Kant also includes his philosophy of the "state" or society in terms of its laws. Society or the state, according to Kant, exists as a body of individuals, all adhering to the same laws and principles because they believe in these as essential for their continued existence as a society. Violating these principles, as when committing a crime, would then mean a disregard for the continued existence of society. Such a violation must be punished appropriately and proportionally.

Hence, Kant's principle focuses on punishment as a matter of justice. He goes as far as stating that those who commit crimes do not commit these only against others, but also against themselves. Every unfair treatment, from insults to theft, is a crime committed against oneself, since its consequences are at least as unpleasant for the criminal as his or her victims. Indeed, the criminal violates the principles of the society that sustains him or her, and by association threatens his or her own life in the process.

When considering these ideas by Kant, I find myself agreeing to a great degree. Although his ideas were promoted centuries ago, I feel they still apply to our systems of justice and society today. Our social setup is such that it promotes the ideas of human rights and justice. The philosophical ideas of action and consequence also still apply to our time today, as they did to Kant's time.

In terms of society, rules and laws exist today to ensure that everyone can enjoy a sense of freedom and human rights. Nobody has the right, by either criminal or other means, to harm others. Such harm results in the destruction or at least the erosion of social bonds. Hence, rules and laws, where they are not voluntarily obeyed, should be enforced by non-voluntary means, which is just and equal punishment in terms of the crime being committed.

As for punishment with justice as the sole basis, the simplicity of this ideal appeals to me. Such a system would create a sense among both criminals and law-abiding citizens that action results in direct consequence. This is a lesson every human being learns from a very early age in all areas of life. Staying up late to watch a film, for example, will result in a tired and moody morning. Not looking carefully where one steps could result in trips and falls. Touching a hot plate will result in a burn. Since these are lessons that are etched into all biological consciousness -- even in those of animals -- I feel it makes sense to also use it for application to the criminal justice system. Quite simply, committing a certain crime will result in a certain punishment. Returning to this kind of simplicity will have the added benefit of eliminating less than effective rehabilitation programs, especially among youthful offenders.

In short, Kant's focus on a simple justice system, where action and consequence are at the heart of the retributive system, appeals to my own ideal of returning to simplicity, where such simplicity is known to work. There is no simpler system than action and consequence: Criminal activity will lead to punishment; lawful activity will lead to gainful and satisfactory living conditions.

A person in disagreement with these ideas may object on several grounds. First, the person might argue against the basic simplicity of Kant's system. Although nobody can disagree that the system is indeed simple, there can be disagreement with the fact that such a system can be useful for human societies today. Indeed, life itself is an increasingly complex phenomenon as human beings grow up and old. One cannot compare human life to animal life, where the simple directness of action and consequence basically remains throughout the animal's life. Since this is, after all, not true of human life, one cannot apply the system to its complexity. Instead, a more complex system is required in order to ensure law and order in society, including systems of restitution and rehabilitation. This is particularly the case among the young, where it is the responsibility of authority figures and other responsible persons to shape the young into responsible and law-abiding adults. In short, a simple system such as the one Kant suggests can never be sufficient to apply to the complexity in human life, especially from the teenage years and older.

Second, opponents might argue that the general good and future of society are certainly at stake. This position holds that any criminal justice system should include deterrent strategies for future crime reduction, as well as restitution strategies for the victims of crimes. As such, rehabilitation is a far better system than mere retribution. A criminal who was simply punished for his crime and set free once more will more than likely continue in his or her criminal ways until he or she is rehabilitated. Crime is a serious issue in society today, and especially in the developed world. Hence, a system that simply punishes without regard for future deterrence positions itself for very high recidivism rates. Therefore, opponents might hold that the response to crime should not be simply societally endorsed methods of harm to the criminal. Instead, the response should be understanding the underlying issues that led to the crime and how to discourage the individual from offending again. This would lead to lower recidivism rates.

A third argument could relate to the disagreement among retribution theorists regarding the severity level of the punishment required. One might use the death penalty as case in point. Not all states agree that the death penalty serves as a viable retributive strategy. Hence, the arbitrary nature of the system makes it difficult to apply consistently across the country.

While I acknowledge that the above arguments are valid. In terms of simplicity, I hold to my view that simplicity is the best way to deal with criminal activity. While it is true that both life and crime can be complex phenomena, the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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