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I think killing in self-defence is perfectly acceptable yet I strongly oppose

I think killing in self-defence is perfectly acceptable yet I strongly oppose the death penalty. Is this consistent?

Yes. To say it's okay to kill in self-defense usually means that it's okay to kill in response to an immediate threat to one's life or safety. We could add various qualifications, but on anything like this understanding, capital punishment isn't self-defense. The person executed almost never poses an immediate threat to anyone's life or safety.

Of course it's sometimes argued that capital punishment protects society in general from a more hypothetical threat of doubtful probability, but that's presumably not what you mean when you say you think killing in self-defense is acceptable. So there's a distinction and hence no problem of consistency.

In making such decisions as whether to grant parole, should we care whether

In making such decisions as whether to grant parole, should we care whether convicts are "remorseful" for their crimes?

I think so. After all, even if remorse is not an absolute guarantee that the remorseful person won't repeat his/her wrongdoing, it is at least a positive indicator.

There are several theories of punishment and so the very idea of parole will vary under different theories. For example, in a retributive theory, the main question will be whether the criminal has "paid his/her debt to society," and it would seem that, strictly speaking, this could simply be a matter of doing the time in prison or whatever. On the other hand, I don't see why a retributivist couldn't think that part of the appropriate "price" includes feelings of remorse. In a social protection theory, the goal is simply to make sure the criminal is no longer a threat. It would seem that his or her feelings of remorse would be at least one useful indicator of whether he or she continued to pose a threat of the relevant sort. The same goes for a rehabilitative theory, where remorse might reasonably be taken as an indication off rehabilitation. For the theory that punishment is supposed to deter crime, however, it is not clear to me where the notion of parole would come in at all, in which case the question is moot under this theory--though I am probably missing something here.

Anyway, the point is that under most general theories of punishment--or at least those that see a role for the practice of parole--there is some reason to see remorse as a relevant and positive factor in favor of parole, though it would not be the only relevant consideration, I think.

How is the death penalty worse than a lifetime of imprisonment? If you kill them

How is the death penalty worse than a lifetime of imprisonment? If you kill them it's over and you killed them back case closed but, the have the oppertunity for eternal bliss still based on the final judgement of him, right? Improbable maybe but, a chance non the less. What else? Lifetime in prison gives the person limited to no freedoms, dependent on their behavior in prison, a life time of guilt, if capable of feeling it or if they do regret the crime, a chance to redeem themselves to the family/friends of the victim, be found not guilty and set free, write a book, make music or do work for the prison. In both cases they won't be able to hurt the public. So, it's just the value of existence vs freedom with morals thrown in.

I'm a little unclear on the question -- sounds like you think life in prison is better than death (for the convicted person, anyway), given your list of good things that life in prison allows (but death doesn't). So you already do think the death penalty is worse for the convict than life in prison?

Or are you (implicitly) arguing against the death penalty, by arguing that it's not worse than life imprisonment, and therefore there is no reason to apply it to the worst criminals?

In any case, one consideration that it's worse for the convict to receive death is simply that very many convicted persons simply don't want the death penalty; lots of people are terrified of being killed, and that terror alone makes the prospect of death seem far worse than life imprisonment. (Of course you might argue that this is an irrational fear, but that then takes you off into all sorts of other issues and directions ....)

And if the ultimate concern is whether our society should allow the death penalty, it's worth mentioning that there are many other things in play in addition to 'how bad is death v. life in prison for the convict' -- including issues of justice, of fairness, of the rights of the victims (and victims' families), etc....

Hope that's useful--


Should people be punished socially for being rude and inconsiderate, etc?

Should people be punished socially for being rude and inconsiderate, etc?

I take it that rudeness and other violations of social norms do sometimes lead to the one who is rude being sanctioned implicitly--as others avoid that person and tell others that he is rude and inconsiderate--or even explicitly, in cases when one is in a position actually to reprimand the person for this behavior. Depending on what one understands by 'punishment', that can certainly constitute punishment; however, to be sure, that punishment is not normally meted out by legal institutions, because the norms of polite behavior--at least in most twenty-first century industrialized democratic societies--do not have any legal status and so are not enforceable. But the big question is whether even the social punishment that is meted out to those who are rude and inconsiderate, the gradual withdrawal of goodwill from them, is justified: I myself think that rather than shunning the person who is rude or inconsiderate, one should do whatever one can to bring that person in line with social norms. To be sure, even to attempt to do this is tricky, but I think that it should be undertaken. (Indeed, in general, I think that every effort should be made to rehabilitate one who offends against explicit or implicit norms. But making out a case for this view goes far beyond the scope of this answer.)

Are intentions of equal importance to actions? For example, if I were to be

Are intentions of equal importance to actions? For example, if I were to be deliberately harmed by another who claimed they had no good reason for their action, or was equally harmed by someone who claimed to hate me because I am a woman why could the latter be more harshly punished, if deemed a hate crime, than the former?

There are some interesting and deep questions here about the relevance of motives to duty, blame, and punishment. For starters, we might want to distinguish the legal question of the relevance of motives to punishment from the moral question about their relevance to duty and blame. We should also distinguish the descriptive question about how the law actually treats these issues and the normative question about how it should treat these issues.

As a descriptive matter, there are two ways the criminal law can acknowledge the relevance of motive. It can make motive an ingredient in the offense, or it can treat motive as relevant as a mitigator or aggravator at sentencing. For instance, some crimes make a motive an ingredient in the offense, as when murder is understood, at common law, as killing with malice aforethought. In this way, one might define separate crimes that are like other crimes but involve the additional element of a bad motive. This is what is done with hate crimes. Alternatively, one might not have separate offenses for familiar crimes from bad motives, but one might allow bad motive to serve as an aggravating factor at sentencing. A criminal trial has two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. If there is discretion at sentencing or a sentencing space or window for a given offense, then motives, whether good or bad, can function as mitigators or aggravators to determine where within the sentencing window a guilty offender should be sentenced.

The practice of allowing bad motive to be an ingredient in an offense is sometimes controversial. Some see this as punishing people for their thoughts, as well as their actions, which they think is problematic.

The right view here is controversial and really depends at least in part on the best answer to the moral question about whether motives are deontically relevant, that is, relevant to whether an action is permissible, obligatory, or forbidden. Though everyone agrees that we can assess people motives, it’s a different question whether they are deontically relevant. A surprisingly large number of philosophers, from different ethical traditions and including prominent contemporary philosophers, have been skeptical about the deontic relevance of motive. One reason for this skepticism is that we want to allow that people can perform their duty (or fail to do so) from both good and bad motives. That suggests that often motives are not deontically relevant. However, that doesn’t mean that motives are never deontically relevant. There are examples that make the idea plausible. According to the doctrine of double effect, it is morally worse to intend harm, as in the case of a terror bomber, than merely to foresee it as a consequence of one’s actions, as in the case of strategic bomber. Also, if we are both ambassadors, it seems plausible that it might be permissible for you to fail to greet a foreign dignitary because you do not feel well, while impermissible for me to fail to greet him due to racial animus. This last example is adapted from a recent book by Steven Sverdlik, called Motive and Rightness, that defends the moral relevance of motive.

John is 30 years old. Jack is 10 years old. They are clinically sane.

John is 30 years old. Jack is 10 years old. They are clinically sane. One day, John feels a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to kill. He murders an innocent stranger. On the same day, Jack feels the same urge to kill. He also murders an innocent stranger. John and Jack both admit responsibility for the murders. They acted in the same way for the same reason. Their actions had the same result. Should they be punished in the same way?

Great question! In practice, at least in the United States, the punishment and even the trial will be different. The 10 year old would be tried in juvenile court. The jury would not be made up of only 10 year olds. John, on the other hand, would have a jury (if there was a jury) of fellow adults or peers, and the possible consequences would be different. I suggest that one reason for a difference in punishment is that while both John and Jack admit responsibility (which I assume involves admitting that they knew that what they did was wrong) the child (and a 10 year old is a child, based on international standards, e.g. UN definition of childhood) did not have as full of a grasp of the wrongness of the action as the adult. It may also be the case that the child had / has less resources mentally to address deviant desires / urges. I think we expect adults to engage in greater self-mastery, to exercise greater restraint and control of desires than children. Although the claim may seem odd: sanity for a child may differ at least in degree from sanity for an adult. It would be odd, but not insane for my four year old nephew to think he could put on a ring that would make him invisible (after all, Bilbo Baggins did this in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but I would be quite insane to think so.

There might also be another way to think of punishment: if a 10 year old is found guilty and given a 10 year sentence, by the time he is 20 he will have spent half of his life in prison. Insofar as part of the role of punishment through prison / incarceration is rehabilitation and reformation, this may be more likely to hurt Jack's chances of reforming. Under such circumstances, perhaps less than 10 years incarceration is warranted (especially if there is admission of guilt, reform, parole, reliable supervision when released...). Perhaps a lesser sentence would be less likely to harden him into a life of such crime. John getting a 10 year sentence would perhaps also harden him, though it would mean that he has spent less of his life time in prison than Jack. It may be that John is more likely to think that he is not a hardened criminal, but someone who made a mistake and paid for it with one third of his opposed to Jack who might (again "might") think: "Half of my life I have been branded a criminal. That is who I am."

That's my best shot at this point in replying to your most excellent question.

Allow me to add that your question really forces one to think about a philosophy of age or aging. When do the values, the virtues and vices of childhood, differ (if at all) from what we think of as the virtues and vices of adulthood? Along with Elizabeth Olson as co-author, we address this in a chapter in a forthcoming book The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy. There are no easy answers, I am afraid, but there are some good suggestions by other contributors to the book, due out in 2012.

Should a parent report their own children to the police if they are aware that

Should a parent report their own children to the police if they are aware that the child has commited a criminal offence. Does the age of the child or the seriousness of the crime matter. Example should you report your child if you suspect they have commited shoplifting or should you only report them for serious crimes like armed ronbbery. What about other family relations such as your brother or cousin commiting criminal acts. Do you owe any loyalty to your family or is it more important to obey the law. Michael.

I don't think there is a hard-and-fast rule to give here. Do you call the cops when you see your kid litter? Of course not! Just make them pick it up and give them a good lecture about why that is unacceptable behavior. But if you see them commit murder? Well, yes, then it seems appropriate. If I caught one of my children shoplifting, I would try to come up with a way to make them repay the store--but I don't think I would be supportive if people at the store gave me an indication that they aggressively prosecute every case of shoplifting.

I think our responsibilities change in different relationships. I would also try to "correct" minor misdemeanors (like littering) when done by friends or more distant family members. The worse the crime, the more it seems to me to call for a legal report. But I think we are, in a way, much more responsible for the behavior of our minor children than we are after they have reached the age of majority, and we are much less responsible for distant relatives, acquaintances, and the like. So my own culpability in failing to report some law-breaking is relative to the degree of my responsibility for the behavior of that other person.

Do I call in every case I see of someone speeding past me on the freeway? No. That's not my responsibility. But if I see evidence that they are seriously impaired in some way (weaving dangerously, etc.), well, yes, I would call that in.

I think the only good advice I have to give here, beyond such rules of thumb, is that you exercise the best judgment of your own level of responsibility (to the criminal, to his or her victims, and to your fellow citizens) and of what you can do that is most likely to provide the best available resolution to the situation.

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!

Why are most nations opposed to prison labor? From a justice perspective, it

Why are most nations opposed to prison labor? From a justice perspective, it seems that would far better repay the damage caused by whatever crimes they committed than sitting around in a prison all day. From a rehabilitation perspective, it would seem that having prisoners (who are often from poor backgrounds) learn or practice a trade of some kind, or engage in unskilled labor, might help facilitate reintegration after release. Yet I've met lots of people who equate prison labor with slavery.

I'm not sure most nations really are opposed to prison labor -- it's pretty common in most of the countries I know something about. The reason against is close to what you suggest: if the labor is mandatory, then it does seem close to slavery; and if the labor is enticed e.g. through an attractive wage, then it seems that prisoners are getting too good a deal and are not really repaying society for the damage caused by their crime. Perhaps a reasonable compromise is to make the labor voluntary and to pay for it with a low salary and/or with some special perks (such as extra time in the library or exercise room, better food, additional visits, etc.).

I am often appalled by how sadistically Americans and people of other nations

I am often appalled by how sadistically Americans and people of other nations regard their criminals. I am appalled because that very sadism itself reduces people to the level of evil as the people we punish. But how does one go about confronting the absolutely wicked notion that because we dislike a persons behavior we should inflict pain on that person thereby perpetuating the evil. Perhaps it can be argued that on utilitarian grounds that some evil should be permitted if it allows less evil to result in total. But that seems to go against the instinct that their is something immoral about being the author of an evil action even if the ends supposedly justify the means. It seems like an ethical system that acknowledges the truth that punishment is nothing more than a perpetuation of evil is utterly impotent. Is there any way at all to resolve this fundamental contradiction between morality and reality?

There are a variety of ways of justifying punishment, not all utilitarian, and some would argue that punishing a criminal respects him or her since we apply a sanction to them which to some degree matches the crime. It is only sadistic if we enjoy their suffering, and surely most members of the public do not, especially as it is very expensive to incarcerate criminals. On your measure, causing any suffering at all is to bring about evil, and this is implausible. Sometimes offenders have to be brought face to face with the nature of their actions by punishing them, and they may reform or they may not, but they are not punished to make them suffer per se. The way in which this topic was described suggests that all punishment is evil, and we can easily think of cases where this is implausible.