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Why do we punish criminals? Is it to keep society safe, to exact revenge, to

Why do we punish criminals? Is it to keep society safe, to exact revenge, to set an example or to teach the criminal a lesson? Which of these motivations would lead to the most just society?

Good questions. The answer to your first question is, basically, all of the things you list in your second question, plus some. The justifications for criminal punishment are typically divided (oversimplistically) into two theories: "backward-looking" retribution and "forward-looking" consequentialism. The forward-looking theories (often associated with utilitarian ethics) focus on the future benefits of punishing criminals: (1) deterring the criminal from further crime, (2) deterring others from carrying out crimes, and perhaps also (3) rehabilitating the criminal and (4) restitution of the victims.

The backward-looking theories (often associated with Kantian ethics) focus on what happened in the past--the crime committed, the harm done, the guilt of the criminal--and aim to punish the criminal as much as he or she deserves it, which may include making the criminal suffer an appropriate amount, but perhaps also forcing him or her to make up for the crime with restitution. This justification may be seen as "exacting revenge," but revenge is typically more personal and not necessarily based on a moral justification.

Now, I suspect--and there's evidence to support--that we are motivated to punish criminals and others whom we perceive as doing us (or our loved ones) harm by strong feelings of resentment and indignation, and we feel relieved when we see these transgressors punished, including in significant cases, seeing them suffer or die (consider how people felt about bin Laden's death). These feelings likely evolved in part (and somewhat ironically) to promote social cohesion: Cheaters had to be punished severely to promote cooperation. But this suggests that our retributive impulses, and our feelings of revenge, may largely serve forward-looking goals--promoting social cohesion and preventing future wrong-doing.

But motivation is not the same as justification. The evolution of our legal system includes depersonalizing revenge, preventing the "spiral of revenge" (e.g., family feuds), and tamping down some of our impulses to punish severely and well beyond what people deserve (e.g., to send a message)--the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment illustrates this goal.

Notice that desert (retributive) theories may sometimes suggest less punishment than deterrent (consequentialist) theories--it may deter better to cut the hands off robbers. On the other hand, consequentialist theories often suggest less severe punishments, since the best future consequences are often served by trying to rehabilitate the criminal (e.g., educating him or her). If the death penalty does not deter (and the evidence suggests it doesn't), then consequentialist theories require getting rid of it. Retributive theories can still allow it, assuming some criminals deserve to be killed (theories of what people deserve open up lots of cans of worms, including whether people have the sort of free will that allows them to deserve punishment).

So, what sort of punishment would lead to the most just society? My own view is that it will include a hybrid justification, recognizing that giving people what they deserve (paying close attention to what capacities for rational control they have), with state-sanctioned (democratically approved) punishment, can play an important role in satisfying our sense of justice (including our deep feelings of retribution), while also serving the purpose of deterrence. But rehabilitation and restitution might best be served by helping those criminals who can be helped and allowing them to pay back their victims and society, rather than locking them up in nasty prisons.

These goals can compete. The "war on drugs" illustrates a conflict between harsh penalties justified by both desert and deterrence and treatments for addiction that would likely have better long-term consequences.

I hope these beginnings of answers to your complicated question are helpful!

Good questions. The answer to your first question is, basically, all of the things you list in your second question, plus some. The justifications for criminal punishment are typically divided (oversimplistically) into two theories: "backward-looking" retribution and "forward-looking" consequentialism. The forward-looking theories (often associated with utilitarian ethics) focus on the future benefits of punishing criminals: (1) deterring the criminal from further crime, (2) deterring others from carrying out crimes, and perhaps also (3) rehabilitating the criminal and (4) restitution of the victims. The backward-looking theories (often associated with Kantian ethics) focus on what happened in the past--the crime committed, the harm done, the guilt of the criminal--and aim to punish the criminal as much as he or she deserves it, which may include making the criminal suffer an appropriate amount, but perhaps also forcing him or her to make up for the crime with restitution. This...

In The Stone column on the New York Times Site, there is an article about the

In The Stone column on the New York Times Site, there is an article about the issue of moral responsibility, in light of the notion that we are what we are because of such factors as genetics, environment, or perhaps determinism and/or chance. In the end the author stoically concludes, that despite it all in some sense we can choose to take responsibility for our actions. While I respect the author's sense of duty, can we fairly extend that same responsibility to other people? For example, could there still be any defense of punishment that isn't consequentalist. For that matter how can any nonconsequentialist ethical theory hold up against this argument?

Given your question, you may be interested in a discussion of Strawson's NYTimes article at the free will/moral responsibility blog, Flickers of Freedom, here.

There's also a discussion on retribution and punishment (and psychopaths) at the blog here.

You'll see in these discussions that there are plenty of philosophers (called compatibilists) who think that free will and moral responsibility are possible even if determinism is true, and who reject Strawson's argument against the possibility of freedom and responsibility. These compatibilists will generally say that retributive punishment is justified, though they might also think that punishing (or treating) criminals for consequentialist reasons (such as deterrence and rehabilitation) is also important.

My own view is that we can have free will and moral responsibility (determinism is irrelevant to this issue), but that we have less than we think (because the sciences of the mind are showing that we have less self-knowledge and conscious control than we think). So, I think retributive punishment can be justified, but usually criminals deserve less of this sort of punishment than our system doles out. We should put more emphasis on the forward-looking purposes of punishment (or, if you wish, call it quarantine and rehabilitation).

Given your question, you may be interested in a discussion of Strawson's NYTimes article at the free will/moral responsibility blog, Flickers of Freedom, here . There's also a discussion on retribution and punishment (and psychopaths) at the blog here . You'll see in these discussions that there are plenty of philosophers (called compatibilists) who think that free will and moral responsibility are possible even if determinism is true, and who reject Strawson's argument against the possibility of freedom and responsibility. These compatibilists will generally say that retributive punishment is justified, though they might also think that punishing (or treating) criminals for consequentialist reasons (such as deterrence and rehabilitation) is also important. My own view is that we can have free will and moral responsibility (determinism is irrelevant to this issue), but that we have less than we think (because the sciences of the mind are showing that we have less self-knowledge and...

Suppose a man commits murder and is then promptly involved in a car crash that

Suppose a man commits murder and is then promptly involved in a car crash that leads to complete loss of all his memories prior to the car crash. The police have indisputable proof that the man did indeed commit the murder. Should they prosecute? If you conclude that they should because in some sense he's physically the same person what if a murderer somehow makes a copy of themselves and then commits suicide, should the copy be prosecuted? If you conclude that they shouldn't be prosecuted because the person after the accident is a different person from before the accident what if there's indisputable evidence that all of their memories will return in 5 years? 5 weeks? 5 days? To my mind the person after the accident is a different person from the one who committed the murder and should therefore not be prosecuted. If the memories return then they should be prosecuted but we shouldn't punish them for a crime "they" didn't commit. But I am unsure as to how much of their memories need to return before...

Wow, you have come up with a case I love to use in my philosophy of mind to connect issues of personal identity to moral responsibility and "moral luck." I have students read the Oliver Sacks' case of Donald ("Murder" in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). Donald took and, while high, killed his girlfriend. He had no memory of the incident (assume this is true for now) and was found not guilty by reason of (temporary) insanity. A few years later he was hit by a car and suddenly (re)remembered the gruesome murder (offering details only the killer could know). The case raises lots of questions: Is Donald on PCP (DPCP) the same person as Donald before (DBefore)? And is Donald at trial and the next few years (DTrial) the same as DPCP? And is Donald after recovering his memories from the accident (DAfter) the same as ... and DTrial and DBefore??

And beyond these questions about personal identity, there's the question of moral luck: assuming that Donald before (DBefore) had no more reason to think he'd become a killer than anyone else planning to take PCP, should DTrial (or DAfter) be charged with murder (DPCP seems to have intentionally killed his girlfriend, as in second-degree murder)? Or is Donald on PCP such a different person that it is only fair to blame him for doing something as stupid and illegal as taking PCP but not for murder?

So far, I've basically just re-iterated your very interesting questions, but I thought the parallels were interesting. Now, how to answer them? Well, everything depends on your theory of personal identity. If you hold John Locke's memory (or same consciousness) theory, as you seem to, then it seems that DTrial should not be punished for what DPCP did since he can't remember it, but as you suggest, DAfter could be punished for what DPCP did--unless you want to bring in the moral luck worry and say that even though DAfter remembers it, he shouldn't be blamed for more than taking PCP since DBefore had no reason to think he'd do what DPCP did! Except you might think there is something bad about DBefore's character that predisposed him to murder when he loses his inhibitions! Or you might want to charge him with manslaughter as we do with drunk drivers who kill (another case of moral luck since the drunk driver who doesn’t kill may have just gotten lucky someone didn’t cross his path). And then there's the (epistemic) problem of how we can know whether DTrial is faking it or not (the problem of other minds rears it's ugly head). Even Locke suggested that we must punish the man who commits a crime while drunk and says he doesn't remember it because we can't be sure, and we have to deter others from trying to get off by committing crimes while drunk (well, he said something like that). So, as a general rule we may need to punish bodies for what they do even if they claim not to remember doing it. Or we may decide to punish bodies because we hold a bodily criteria for personal identity. If I read Derek Parfit right, he seems to suggest that our practical interests (such as legal responsibility) will set the boundaries of the conditions for personal identity (e.g., we'll just have to stipulate what to say about weird cases) rather than there being a metaphysical truth about personal identity which we then apply to our practical interests (such as legal responsibility).

I better stop before I try to deal with your case of the murderer copying himself.

Wow, you have come up with a case I love to use in my philosophy of mind to connect issues of personal identity to moral responsibility and "moral luck." I have students read the Oliver Sacks' case of Donald ("Murder" in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat ). Donald took and, while high, killed his girlfriend. He had no memory of the incident (assume this is true for now) and was found not guilty by reason of (temporary) insanity. A few years later he was hit by a car and suddenly (re)remembered the gruesome murder (offering details only the killer could know). The case raises lots of questions: Is Donald on PCP (DPCP) the same person as Donald before (DBefore)? And is Donald at trial and the next few years (DTrial) the same as DPCP ? And is Donald after recovering his memories from the accident (DAfter) the same as ... and DTrial and DBefore?? And beyond these questions about personal identity, there's the question of moral luck: assuming that Donald before (DBefore) had no...