Thursday, June 3, 2010

Punishing the Universe

I came across the following thought experiment:
If a pill were to be discovered that had a 100% cure rate for sex offenders. After taking this pill, the recidivism rate was 0% for adjudicated sex offenders. Would anyone step up to advocate that we could now simply send the adjudicated sex offender to the clinic for a pill and then return him on his merry way back home without any jail time or pure punishment?
The proposition was deemed absurd because, regardless of pragmatism, there are some things we must do simply because they are right.

Surely, if something is right then we ought to do it. But first we must determine if it is right. Something isn’t right because it is right. Maybe we can’t answer the question. But that seems all the more reason to ask it.

The point of the sex offender question is that it solves the practical question, but not the retributive one. The problem with it is that it assumes we know the full causes of sex-offenses. Because we don’t, we have to accept that it is purely genetic and that all prior behavior can simply be wiped away.

I think retribution is a basic human impulse. In our moments of pure reptilian idiocy, we even punish inanimate objects. Have you ever kicked a coffee table after stubbing your toe on it? We see this is punishing wild animals – it may have been perfectly natural for a mountain lion to have attacked a hiker, yet we feel the need to kill it out of pure revenge. We need to “make things right”. But when a house is crushed by a falling tree, we don’t feel the need to exact revenge. That would be silly, hah! My argument is that the human desire for retribution is no less absurd.

Now, it may be true that we’ll never go along with it. But we’ve come a long way in our understanding of human nature and crime. We no longer torture. We no longer have public executions. Although many conservatives no doubt experience frustration over this. We will likely always personally feel irrational emotions when the victims of crime. But that isn’t the way to structure society.

Some will argue that retribution serves a practical purpose in that it is therapeutic for the victim. I’d like to see studies on how this might work. How would you determine such a thing? One victim might require a few days imprisonment. Another might never get over it. I imagine that this is a false hope – a way of justifying revenge. But even if it works, it doesn’t make it right. What if prison wouldn’t work, but an amputation might? Or some old-fashioned torture?

In the end it still seems mysterious and barbaric. Maybe that’s all we are. But I’d like to think we can be better than that.

No comments:

Post a Comment