Forward Thinking: How Should We Punish People For Moral Failures?

A lot of discussion about punishment centers around legal punishments for crimes against the law and punishments for children. These are great topics worthy of exploration in the future. But for this post, I want you to reflect on a lesser discussed question about punishment. Rather than talk about legal violations or how to discipline children, please answer the following question(s) about how to deal with the moral failure of those adults we interact with personally and professionally:

How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

If you write a blog post about this topic, send it to me at camelswithhammers @ gmail dot com and I will include it in a round up of people’s thoughts on the topic. Over at Libby Anne’s blog, we have the latest “Forward Thinking” round up, on the topic of advice for teenagers about sex. 

Previous round ups of bloggers replies about how to be forward thinking include Libby Anne’s collection of posts on civic responsibility and answers to a question I posed about how we can mourn collectively in a pluralistic waythat respects various mourners’ different beliefs and needs.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • BabyRaptor

    1) This is a tricky question. There are very few things that society collectively agrees on as wrong, and even those can splinter. Example: Most everyone agrees that murder is wrong, but you have the pro-forced birth crowd claiming that first trimester abortion is murder.

    If both you and the other person involved agree that what was done was immoral, then I would say limit involvement to either A) if you were the one wronged or B) if the person committing the wrong asks for your involvement. (And if a third party is involved, they agree.)

    If you and the ‘immoral’ person do not agree, things are going to become clusterFucky. If you weren’t the person wronged, then it’s really not any of your business to get involved unless requested. (Notable exception: Things that are illegal already, say child abuse.) If you were, then my first step would be an honest discussion to see if some middleground can be found. If not, and the wrong isn’t already covered by law, you may well have to just sit on it.

    …And then my boss called. So I will post my thoughts on #1 and come back later to finish.

  • Nox

    By calling attention to how their actions differ from better available actions.

    Punishing the person isn’t as important as upholding the necessity of better morality (or at the very least, basic morality).

    Punishing people is an unfortunate (perhaps unavoidable) side effect of having moral rules and needing them to have some impact. When and how shunning or imprisonment need to take place, should be driven by a desire to prevent future incidents, not a desire for revenge.

  • Shira

    In the course of the next couple of weeks, I plan to write a formal post on this. However, today I came across a new concept that I find very interesting (and relevant to this question): altruistic punishment. (The post I saw it in is at

    It occurs to me that there are all kinds of examples of altruistic punishment that are formalized — everything from prisons (an institution by which we taxpayers pay to feed and house people we wish to punish) to labor strikes (in which workers accept loss of pay in order to punish their employer) to boycotts (consumers agree to forego the good to be had by purchasing a particular product in order to punish the manufacturer of that product).

    Those are not relevant to your question, since they are formal rather than private remedies. But of course we use altruistic punishment in our private interactions as well — it seems to be a natural reaction to the emotion of indignation, which is a response to unfairness.

    So something I will be looking into is the limits within which altruistic punishment actually works to create pro-social behavior. There are so many questions to explore here — how does it relate to revenge? To enforced “codes of honor” ? To jealousy?

    The central question for me is, can we apply altruistic punishment skillfully?

    This will be fun. Thanks for the question.

  • Shira

    Sorry for this — it is just a comment to allow me to get notification of responses to this post, since I forgot to check that in the comment above.

  • Duke Eligor

    The more I think about it, the less I even see a good purpose to “punishing” someone for a moral failure. When we remove concerns of public or personal safety (e.g. law and legal consequences) or teaching children beneficial behavior, we’re not left with much reasoning behind it. Maybe the purpose is to show scorn for those we find distasteful? But even in that case, it’s more like saying “yuck” when we eat something nasty, and the intent isn’t even to “punish.” When I see a video of Bill O’Reily, for instance, it’s satisfying enough just to spew a few verbal epithets of disgust; he really doesn’t need to hear the words or know that I said them (or even who I am), or “feel punished” in any way. I can blurt out my scorn, stop watching, and move on with life.

    So where does the desire to actively and with effort “punish” immorality come from? Is it from a resentment or malice towards others, and the need to satisfy those feelings through a socially acceptable way? If so, then it’s just weak-willed passive-aggression. Is it from a desire to demonstrate our own moral superiority to the person being punished? If so, then it’s just self-serving egotism. Is it from the belief that if we don’t rigorously enforce morality, others will automatically start behaving in a harmful, malevolent fashion towards us? If so, then it’s just fear-driven moral handwringing. All of these things I find personally distasteful, yet they seem all that’s left when we take out the practical (non-moral) concerns. Maybe the desire to punish immorality is just a response we have when we feel impotent to do anything constructive about a problem or threat.

    And now that I’ve thought about it, I’m going to be more conscientious about my response to “immorality” from now on. I don’t find the feelings or assumptions behind the role of “moral enforcer” to be particularly palatable.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes the “moral enforcer” spirit is troubling to me too.

  • William Branch

    I see no point in punishing anyone, for moral or legal lapses … because to me punishment is sadistic and self righteous. Legally societies are obligated to sanction violators for the common good, and morally we are required to promote the further enlightenment of all people. Hence morality and law are incommensurable. On that level legislating morality is an error in thought or a sectarian or prideful act, which is itself immoral. We still have differences on what the common good is, even as we do on what is moral or immoral. Morality is decided by individual conscience, but legality is decided by whatever political process your society uses. So for example given my individual morality and sense of common good, I see no reason to sanction responsible human sexual behavior, including responsible heterosexuality or homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see that there aren’t some limits morally or legally on what is sexually possible, rape for example.

  • Annie

    I also wonder about the choice of “punishment” here. Shouldn’t education and reform be the goal? I don’t see punishment as helpful in most cases. Indeed, it’s typically counterproductive.

  • Tracey

    A few of my thoughts on punishment as a technique for moral inprovement:

    1) The infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.
    2) The penalty inflicted.
    Suffering, pain or loss that serves as retribution

    What are some reasons I can think of to punish?
    1) anger response- you hurt me and now I will hurt you
    (Not a morality based reason, unless your morality is seriously old-school)

    2) teaching purposes- if you do wrong, this is what will happen to you
    (It may work as retrospective or preventative for future)

    Most of the punishments I would inflict on others are as much for my protection as they are for punishment of wrongdoing. I’m thinking mostly of some type of betrayal by a friend, after which I distance myself from that friendship either a little or a lot. I can’t say this response is necessarily only about saving myself however. I do recognize that little high feeling one might get from seeing a bad guy get his. I think a lot of people have this within themselves. It’s why a happy ending might include finally killing that six-fingered man who killed your father. I guess the challenge becomes knowing when punishment is more about our own satisfaction over self-protection or the teaching of a lesson. In distancing myself from a person following a harmful or misguided action, I achieve the self-protection bit AND the loss of closeness with me just might make them consider the wrongness of what they’ve done. I admit that this is not always done with as much explanation as might benefit them. I find it difficult to talk at length with a person who has hurt me deeply without then falling back to the emotional anger response where I am no longer teaching and simply want THEM to hurt.

    There are a handful of times I’ve used punishment in the form of a medium length scolding in a public area. I did this once with a group of college guys who were mocking and otherwise verbally abusing a socially awkward guy also attending the college. I think it’s a good idea to call out bullying if you see it happening. Having been bullied, I was always hoping someone around would say something to break the spell. This can function as a way to immediately stop the problem, at least for the instance in question. It’s also a way to nudge others who were inclined to keep silent- they don’t have to be the first or only person to speak if someone else has jumped in and said something.

  • Duke Eligor

    I can see the point in punishing in a general sense, or more in a operant conditioning sense. But even in raising kids, “punishments” aren’t all that useful for producing positive behavior, but rather shedding light on a negative behavior to make the person think (you follow up by showing the right way to do things). And even so, punishing someone “for their own good” still sounds like a bit of an uncomfortable rationalization to me, even if it is a sincere one.

    That being said, I don’t think that standing up to a group of people, or a friend, or a family member, and giving them a verbal chastisement is necessarily about trying to improve their behavior, but about highlighting their current behavior and letting them know in unequivical terms that you will oppose it. Very often the utilitarian result of “taking a stand” like this is to set a good example for others and demonstrate positive behavior (observational learning, ala Bandura). But I don’t consider that the source of its moral value, just a happy consequence. Personally BEING the kind of person who refuses to shy away from injustice is what it’s ultimately about. In other words, the moral source is one’s own behavior and what that says about one’s character. Other people being inspired to behave better is sort of a fringe benefit.

    I sometimes have to punish my students when they misbehave in class, and this may or may not ever really change their behavior (though I want it to). The point is that I believe they can be better, and I’m committed to never giving up on a kid, whether he believes it himself or not. If I fail to improve his behavior, I’ll be disappointed and worried about him, surely, but I still have my self-respect. But if I gave up trying, I couldn’t respect myself. The same goes for any moral issue in which it is necessary to take a stand. Win or lose on the issue, if I don’t stand up, I’ll feel like a coward. That’s the only thing I know I can have absolute control over.

    So I guess the purely and fundamentally moral dimension is more about protecting my self-worth from the only person who can take it away: myself. Everything else is important, but secondary (practical concerns, emotion, compassion/empathy, etc.). That’s the attitude that’s been most beneficial to me in my experience, and I’ve gotten used to asking a persistent question: What do my actions say about my character? And the other moral questions and concerns fall under that. That’s the kind of “moral enforcer” I think I’m comfortable with.

  • ohellino

    I think honesty is moral quality that I would like to encourage in my friends. But I don’t see how I could punish them for dishonesty. I always think something like “I’ll be dishonest back and see how they like it” but it doesn’t really work that way. People don’t accept retaliation, they just retaliate against it. Then I’ll be caught in a circle of revenge, and I don’t want that. On a related note there was one guy who sucker punched me in the kidney, and I cut contact with him and won’t talk to him. So that’s a form of punishment, maybe now he’ll think twice before hitting someone from behind without notice. Or maybe not……