Ethics: The Justification of Punishment Ethics is the branch of Philosophy that examines moral behaviour.
Understanding Punishment Firstly, we have to make a distinction between the CONCEPT of punishment and the JUSTIFICATION of the state in inflicting punishment.
1) The concept of punishment * Punishment is the infliction of harm (something unpleasant) on a law-breaker for a crime committed. One cannot be punished for nothing, one can only be punished for the crime committed. By definition, the state cannot punish an innocent person. [If it is proven that the person punished was innocent, this is referred to as a 'miscarriage of justice'.] * An acceptable authority punishes (i.e. in the true democratic process, a legal court of law).
Taking both points together, we have the basis for a definition of punishment: namely, an acceptable public authority inflicts something unpleasant [deprives freedom, inflicts physical pain, death etc.] on a person for a crime committed.
2) The Justification of Punishment The infliction of deliberate harm on someone requires it to be justified. Why punish the law-breaker?
Three theories have been put forward: a) you deserved it - the retribution theory b) it stops future law-breaking - the deterrence theory c) it reforms the law-breaker - the reformative theory
The issues with the above theories are: The Retribution theory - it does not tell us WHY punishment is justifiable - it just is: if you break the law, you will be punished. The Deterrence and Reformative theories - while part of the understanding of these theories is that good consequences can arise from a crime and can produce for society, the question really is: how EFFECTIVE is punishment in deterring actual crime or potential crimes from taking place OR from deterring actual or potential criminals OR reforming actual or would-be criminals?
What exactly does punishment do for the crime? Nothing can be done for the crime. It is an historical event. What is done cannot be undone by punishment.
It is not enough to say 'you deserve it for what you did' - this does not actually justify the act of punishment; the effectiveness of deterring others from law-breaking, in reality, does not always succeed; whilst a person who repeatedly breaks the law makes the reformative theory problematic.
What is the alternative? Are there alternative ways of enforcing law, of dealing with law-breakers?
This proves to be a very difficult question, as it is hard to get people to accept any other option but punishment.
Punishment is almost a 'natural' reaction (as revenge sometimes seems to be a 'natural' reaction).