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Hello: Almost two years ago -in January 2009- I was supposed to marry my fiancé with whom I have had a five-year relationship. Three weeks before our wedding, I just called her and cancelled everything over the telephone. That was a very mean and coward thing to do. I inflicted a serious emotional harm on her (and on myself too). A couple of months after I did such an awful thing (I can’t find a better word for that kind of action) I called her to apologize for what I have done. I explained her that I committed such a grave error because I was terrified of getting married. I wanted her back, but she refused me. Since then I’ve tried to gain her love again, but she just do not care for me anymore. I accept that as a fair outcome for my reckless behavior. I just deserve to be refused by my ex fiancé. What I haven’t been able to do until now is to cope with my regrets and my endless sense of guilt. I just can’t believe that I did what I did. I feel awful and unworthy of anything. I don’t need a priest...

If a friend were to tell you the poignant story that you relate I doubt that you would tell them that there ought to be no end to their guilt, that getting spooked by marriage and backing out is a sin that can never be forgiven. Think of yourself as a friend. You apologized many times. You have suffered.You did not by any means destroy your former fiance. Truly, it would be irrational to keep torturing yourself and if it is irrational no amount of reason is going to assuage the guilt. Perhaps though it isn't all guilt. Emotions are not as easy to individuate as things in the world. Perhaps there is a strong admixture of regret for not being with her, of missing her and feeling alone, maybe that is what you need to deal with the most and that could be very hard and painful. I hope very much that you get your soul back- it sure sounds as though you have a lot of it.

Rape seems to be a crime that is very difficult to deal with, legally,

Rape seems to be a crime that is very difficult to deal with, legally, especially when the two parties are in some way or another involved. Assuming there is no video evidence and no medical evidence (i.e. injury), the rapist can always claim the sex was consensual, and assuming the two know one another (as is often the case), the idea that they might have sex is always possible; this makes it relatively easy for rapists to defend themselves. Rape can, furthermore, be used to horribly smear somebody's reputation, cause them to lose their job and ruin and relationship they might be in at the moment - and though it is difficult to prove, it is also very difficult to disprove, except by having a convincing alibi. If two people have consensual sex, and one party decides to claim they tried to turn down sex but were raped, there is little the other party can do to defend themselves. Assuming innocence until proven guilty could let rapists walk free, but assuming guilt until proven innocent could get...

I don't see what is special about rape from the evidence point of view. There are many crimes which take the form of one party saying one thing, and the other something else. In the Anglo-American legal system a jury may well have the opportunity to decide on who is telling the truth, and sometimes it is difficult and sometimes it is not. Juries have to decide what was going on in the minds of the accused and the other people involved in a vast variety of cases, including fraud, deception, conspiracy, murder and so on, and prejudice is potentially present in a whole variety of cases.

Is it morally acceptable to punish? And at what stage does punishment turn to

Is it morally acceptable to punish? And at what stage does punishment turn to revenge? Comparing something like lex talionis (which seems like revenge) with rehabilitative/correctional systems (which seem restorative), it seems that certain forms of punishment are more ethical than others.

What is quite interesting about the lex talionis ("an eye for an eye....") is that it functioned to limit retaliation (e.g. if my neighbor injures my eye, I am not thereby authorized to kill him and his family). In any case, there are many theories of punishment. These include the notion of retributive justice, the communication theory of justice, utilitarian theories, and so on.

Keeping this reply short, you might consider a thought experiment (not my own) that will test your views about punishment and revenge. Imagine someone has done great harm to those you love --imagine a case in which someone killed a member of your family due to driving while intoxicated. Consider now two possibilities: in the one the person is punished (proportionately) and through this he comes to understand that what he did was wrong (imagine that until this event he lived as though he had little or no responsibility for others). Imagine, too, that through this process he becomes rehabilitated and even (when released from jail) he works to make financial compensation for the famiies and dependents that were injured. Now consider a different option: through either psycho-surgery or chemicals the wrong-doer can be instantly changed to a rehabilitated state and motivated to make the same compensation. In this case, you get the same end point, but without the punishment. Do we miss something in the second case that we have in the first?

The thought experiment may be flawed after all, would we ever know that psycho-surgery or chemicals could guarantee the results? but I think we do miss something when punishment is missing. Punishment serves to institutionally remove any pleasure from the wrong-doing and (at its best) provides a more rooted foundation for reform than the imagined chemical and surgical interventions. Still, institutions of punishment in the real world (and not just in thought experiments!) are often deeply flawed, and so any final, practical philosophy of punishment will need to take into account not just the ideal but the probable outcome of this or that punishment.

A final note on revenge: at least two things may distinguish a just punishment from revenge. The latter is often personal (e.g. if I am injured, I want to be the one who inflicts harm) and, unlike the lex talionis, has no upper limit.

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).

Is the death penalty a viable option under the premise that assuming we have

Is the death penalty a viable option under the premise that assuming we have apprehended the guilty party, the guilty party, when executed, will never be able to kill again and therefore society has been made that much safer?

I think that the problem with that argument is that we can get nearly the same level of safety by sending the killer to jail for life. And given the imperfections of the justice system, there's a chance that we could execute an innocent person which is much worse than sending an innocent person to jail for a few years. Perhaps, if we were absolutely certain someone was guilty of murder and we had good reason to think that the death penalty had a significant deterrent value in preventing future murders it could be justified. But the deterrent value of the death penalty has been questioned in recent years.

I think that in cases of horrific crimes, the death penalty is acceptable, or

I think that in cases of horrific crimes, the death penalty is acceptable, or even required by retributive justice. However, I think this only applies to cases where there is absolutely no room for doubt. I also think that there really are such cases where there is 100% certainty e.g. the perpetrator was seen by many witnesses and confesses, plus as much additional evidence as you need. Unfortunately, if we only make convictions where we have the luxury of this certainty, we set the bar too high, and many guilty people escape conviction. Inevitably, under any reasonable judicial system there will be people charged for crimes they didn’t commit. But when you are charged with a crime, you are thereby unequivocally guilty, and there’s no way of charging someone with being guilty with the qualification, “he might not have done it” and another “he’s guilty of the crime and there’s no doubt”. In the eyes of the law, a guilty verdict is definitive; you did it, end of story. Is there a problem with this either...

You make two good points. On the first, re death penalty, I would agree that there are cases where it's crystal clear that the accused is guilty. But this is really beside the point. The question is whether we can design a mechanism that correctly identifies these cases. In the absence of such a mechanism, we must be especially reluctant to use the death penalty.

Your other point is that perhaps we should incorporate into criminal verdicts an assessment (by the judge or jury) of the degree of certainty. But again, there is the question how accurate this assessment would be. And there is the further point that it would look quite bad to impose a severe punishment on someone with the comment that we've just barely reached the minimally required level of certainty. Better then perhaps to handle this issue unofficially: just as jurors sometimes acquit someone who very clearly did what the law proscribes when they feel the person did nothing wrong (example: the killing of a suffering and terminally ill spouse), a judge may sometimes impose a lesser penalty because she is less than fully convinced that the person really committed the crime.

And a possibly interesting footnote on this second point. In the case of acquittals, as well, one could incorporate an assessment (by the judge or the jury) of the degree of certainty. And this is actually done, I believe, in Scottish jurisprudence, which allows -- aside from "guilty" and "innocent" -- a third verdict of "not proven." The accused goes free, but has not been fully cleared of the charges brought against her or him.

Does punishment serve any useful long term purpose? It always seems like

Does punishment serve any useful long term purpose? It always seems like punishments that are excessively harsh lead to civil unrest, and punishments that are not harsh enough are thereby render quite useless. So is there a medium at which punishment is a useful tool in society, or is it just an archaic mode of retribution?

There's been lots of interesting philosophical work on punishment, including discussions that defend a retributive account of punishment and discussions that justify punishment on other grounds, for example, deterring future crime. So, if any of those defenses or justifications is correct, then, yes, punishment does serve a useful long term purpose for (depending on the exact account that is correct) the criminal, his or her victim, or the society in which he or she lives.

Of the philosophical treatments of the questions you raise, I most highly recommend an Enlightenment thinker who once was widely read but, unfortunately, no longer is: Cesare Beccaria. His short book On Crimes and Punishments (1764) condemned the use of torture, argued for the abolition of capital punishment, and advocated many reforms for the rational and fair administration of law. Beccaria’s ideas about legal and penal reforms, which influenced intellectuals and statesmen throughout Europe and in North America, inspired many significant reforms in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century. Becarria's book also influenced Jeremy Bentham who, along with Beccaria, produced the foundational ideas of the classical school of criminology.

Many of the reforms that Beccaria advocated remain aspirations for contemporary systems of legal justice, including punishment proportionate to the severity of the crime and the development of a system of published laws and legal procedures applied equally to all without interference by the particular interests of rulers, judges, or clerics and without providing favorable treatment to individuals of higher social, political, or economic status.

For more on Beccaria see:

Beccaria, C. (2008). On crimes and punishments and other writings (A. Thomas Ed. & A. Thomas & J. Parzen Trans.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Original work published 1764.)

The text of On Crimes and Punishments plus three significant contemporary scholarly reactions by Ferdinando Facchinei (1765), Pietro and Allessandro Verri (1765), and Voltaire (1766). The book also includes a text related to Beccaria’s political work reforming the death penalty in Lombardy and contains an extensive introduction to Beccaria’s life and ideas by the prominent Italian scholar Alberto Burgio. This translation has greater literary elegance than the Cambridge edition.

Beccaria, C. (1995). On crimes and punishments and other writings (R. Bellamy Ed. & R. Davies Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1764).

The text of On Crimes and Punishments plus selections from Beccaria’s academic lectures, economic writings, and intellectual correspondence. Includes a useful bibliographical sketch, chronology, bibliographical glossary, and explanatory footnotes.

Davis, D. (1957). The movement to abolish capital punishment in America, 1787-1861. The American Historical Review, 63(1), 23-46.

An historical account of capital punishment reform in America that includes an extensive discussion of Beccaria’s influence in the United States. This article also relates Beccaria’s ideas to those of John Locke and addresses the use of Beccaria’s secular arguments by members of American religious communities that advocated the abolition of capital punishment.

Maestro, Marcello (1973). Cesare Beccaria and the origins of penal reform. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

The only book-length biography of Beccaria published in English. Maestro provides much useful information about Beccaria’s life, work, and relations with European intellectuals and statesmen, but his assessment of Beccaria’s ideas is unsophisticated and his narrative tends towards hagiography.

Why do we consider the death penalty immoral in a situation where a sadist (a

Why do we consider the death penalty immoral in a situation where a sadist (a very immoral person) commits heinous crimes and is sentenced to life imprisonment where he is protected from lynch mobs, given access to education, therapy (which has proved not only to be non effective in rehabilitating sadists but frees them from responsibility for their actions), medical care, food, clothing, televison, gym, etc. all at the taxpayers expense and one of his victims (a child) who has survived the trauma and torture inflicted is sentenced to a life of physical and psychological disability, in later life unable to work or pay for his ailments and who lives in constant fear that the sadist will be released and come and get him again? Is it possible that our reluctance to inflict the death penalty is out of fear but that we simply rationalize this as morality as that is the more palatable excuse. Are we just moral cowards? Wouldn't we all be relieved if the sadist suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack? And if...

Thank you for your message. I'm not sure exactly what you have in mind when you presuppose, in your first sentence, that "we" consider the death penalty immoral in the situation you describe. So far as I can tell, at least in the U.S., a good many people consider the death penalty in such a situation moral. But to continue the line of thought you begin, let's see whether it might be possible to make sense of those people who consider it immoral in that situation.

1. You're right that the sadist might get a lot of benefits at taxpayer expense. On the other hand, it's well known that at least given the current difficulty of prosecuting a death penalty case, and all the hurdles that must be got over after that, lifelong incarceration is actually less expensive than the death penalty. As a result, if your argument rests on the financial considerations, a life sentence is clearly the best option for such a person.

2. You ask whether reluctance to inflict the death penalty is out of fear, and that all moral argumentation is simply rationalization. Of course that's possible, but I have no idea how we would go about settling such a question short of subjecting each person offering this moral argumentation to rigorous psychotherapy. I think that unless you're able to provide evidence of which I'm not aware, you'd have to agree that there's no current way to know the answer to your question. Of course that means that we shouldn't accept any suggestion, whether you're making it or not, that moral argumentation really *is* motivated by fear. The same goes for your rhetorical question whether we are really just moral cowards. My answer would simply be: I don't know, do you?

3. One can be relieved that a dangerous and morally evil person has died, while still valuing his life. Consider another case: A very old and ailing relative might finally pass away, and all of those who were caring for her might find her passing a relief, both because it relieved her suffering and lessened their burden. But I think they would be offended, and rightly so, by someone suggesting that they didn't value her life. Of course they did; it is just that their valuing it didn't mean they wanted it to go on forever no matter its quality. So too, just because I might be relieved that the sadist is dead, doesn't mean that I don't value his life. More generally, many people will say that a person's life has value no matter how evil they are or have been. I'm not saying that those people are definitely correct, but when you describe the sadist's life as one "we obviously do not value at all," I would suggest that view is not obvious; many reasonable people will even deny it.

So I hope you'll consider whether the issues here might be more complex than your question suggests. I should stress that I would share all the repugnance and horror at the sadist that you do; as would most everyone else. I am only stressing, in my reply, that those who would refrain from inflicting the death penalty in such a case might have more to be said on their behalf than you perhaps envision.

Mitch Green

Why is it desirable to be judged by a jury of one's "peers"? We demand that our

Why is it desirable to be judged by a jury of one's "peers"? We demand that our doctors, business executives and politicians be highly exceptional individuals. So why should we trust court decisions, which can often be both incredibly important and incredibly difficult, to random groups of laypersons?

This kind of objection often comes up, but I think is based upon a misunderstanding of what it means to be a "peer" in the required (legal) sense. One is my "peer" if one is a fellow citizen with all associated rights and responsibilities. That person doesn't have to be my equal in strength, or intelligence, or at basketball--he or she simply has to be my equal as a citizen. If their vote counts as much as mine, they're my peer.

In his Republic, Plato said (with evident contempt) that democracy was something like government by "bald-headed tinkers." (I resemble that!) But at the heart of democratic theory is the idea that all people are "created equal," by which the theorist cannot sensibly mean "equal in all things." The point is that we are all, or at least should be all, regarded as politically and legally equal. Other political theories--including especially Plato's--obviously reject this idea. Plato especially thought that political decisions--just like all medical decisions--should be made only by those with appropriate expertise. It is a little difficult to identify just how we would identify this expertise, however, how we could produce it in a class of rulers (or judges), and how we could avoid corruption of such a system.

What should we make of the Dickson verdict? UK prisoner Kirk Dickson and his

What should we make of the Dickson verdict? UK prisoner Kirk Dickson and his wife Lorraine made various appeals to achieve their right to found a family. Dickson is in prison for murder and by the time he is released his wife will be too old to bear children. The couple campaigned for Dickson's right to donate sperm to be used via IVF. Their appeal was granted based upon the idea that if Dickson was not allowed to do this, it would be a violation of his basic right to found a family. I think that lots of questions can be raised from this: Do criminals sacrifice their right to found a family when committing a crime? If not, should their right be acknowledged through the use of IVF - what about alternative methods that cost less money? The biggest question for me is based upon the fact that six more prisoners have petitioned for their right to become fathers. But what happens when prisoners petition for their right to become mothers? This adds a whole new element to the debate but the state cannot deny...

I'm with you. But for me, the concern is not so much men vs. women and their respective rights, but the nature of punishment and who really ought to become a parent. The crucial problem with this case is that the murderer in question is currently incarcerated. There are certain rights which prisoners maintain, despite their crimes. The right to medical care. The right to worship. The right to have access to legal counsel. The right to live in a place that is safe while incarcerated. Putting someone in a dank hole to rot isn't justice, no matter the crime committed.One of the many social purposes of incarceration is punishment.

Punishment ought to hurt, but not too much (see note on dark hole above). No doubt it is painful for prisoners not to be able to do things that free people otherwise enjoy. But this strikes us as the fair price paid for committing crimes. I think the human right to have a family is on shaky grounds, much more shaky than the right for prisoners to have health, spiritual, and legal care. One reason for this is our tradition of human rights long predates the required biotechnology. Locke and Hobbes just weren't worried about smuggling sperm out of jail. A better reason why we shouldn't think of prisoners as having a human right to have a family while incarcerated is the potential life at stake: the future child. Society should come to the point of admitting that ethically, not everyone ought to become a parent. Who would I ban from parenting? It would be a great list to debate. But people currently incarcerated sounds like a good place to start.It would be taking things too far to say that convicted murderers should never become parents. If someone earns parole, turns his life around, and becomes a model citizen then I think - as far as the law is concerned - a convicted murderer might have the same chance that anyone else has to parent. Of course, would I say the same thing if the person in question was a convicted child molester-murder? Probably not, but my concern again would be ethics and not the reach of the law.