Tuesday conversation: punishment.

Before you get all kinky because of the title, it’s not about what Republicans and priests do when nobody’s looking.  Dan Fincke and Libby Anne have one of their new deep questions out:

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?

I think the answer’s pretty simple: when their conscience fails to sufficiently punish them so that they will care about not making the same mistake in the future.

As far as what principles guide us, I’d say the fact that we learn from other people.  We don’t live long enough to make all mistakes ourselves, and sometimes we don’t always care as much about the consequences as we should.  Human nature: what can ya do?

The punishment should fit the crime, and should be whatever best helps the person to care (or to even be aware of their transgression).  For instance, if I tell Michaelyn that something she said hurt my feelings, her conscience will take over from there.  I have no need to make her feel guilty or to do anything else.  This is one of the failings of Christianity with the whole “eternal punishment” thing: punishment should be used to improve people, not just to make them suffer.

Sometimes a person’s conscience isn’t sufficient to keep them from acting immorally.  Take the husband who repeatedly beats his wife.  For them, we must apply external punishments like jail time.  This is not done out of revenge, but to curb people’s behavior so that they can function within a civilized society.  We want people to keep reaping the benefits of living in our society, but there must be standards of compassionate behavior to which we must expect people to ascend with some degree of regularity.

And if those we love want to be punished in the bed room, so be it!  :P  What is y’all’s take on punishment?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • baal

    “I think the answer’s pretty simple: when their conscience fails to sufficiently punish them so that they will care about not making the same mistake in the future.”
    I think this is a terrible way to consider punishment. I’m defining punishment as doing something to another person so that they are harmed in hopes that 1) they change something 2) I get to feel better. Turns out research has done a lot to prove the #2 so I leave you to the googles for the evidence (it exists). For myself, I know that you punishing me does not send a message that I should change. It usually just tells me you’re an abusive person who is busy getting off on policing (point #2). I’m also extremely contrarian to anyone who seeks to punish me and seen others who exhibit the same anti-punishment mentality.
    So to answer the question, when is it ok to punish (inflict harm)? It’s ok when you have explicitly stated what needs to be changed, why and how your increase of harm is justifiable. Absent all three parts, I’m convinced you’re just engaged in emotional masturbation in public and without consent of those around you.

    As a separate issue, punishment doesn’t work. I’m going to make this point the long way around and by analogy (straight up would be even longer). Obama won his 2nd election by a lower margin than the first. His first election was one of hope and aspiration. The second was more of a “OMG not Romney”. The difference there is strong full support vs soft circumstantial support. In the end, yes he won either way but were you a politician which would you want? Supporters or folks who are ready to bail the second they have a place they can go to?
    Punishment is much the same as the soft vote. You might get compliance for a while but the punishees will be looking for an out or for a chance to give you pay back.

    • http://www.godlessteens.com Godless Teen

      Your definition of punishment is flawed in and of itself. Here’s what you said:
      “I’m defining punishment as doing something to another person so that they are harmed in hopes that 1) they change something 2) I get to feel better”

      #1 is, to a degree, accurate, but it fails to encompass the purpose of punishment, that is, incapacitation, deterrence, restitution, and rehabilitation. #2, I’ve always felt, is inaccurate because it suggests we deserve to hurt criminals because they hurt us. However, that’s not really a legitimate reason; the reason we punish criminals is instead shown in the aforementioned four reasons. Retribution, as I’ve seen it, seems to claim that we deserve to hurt criminals because they hurt us, but this view really only puts us on the same, lower level that the criminal occupies.

      “For myself, I know that you punishing me does not send a message that I should change.”
      This goes to show that you misunderstand the full extent of the reasons for punishment.

      “So to answer the question, when is it ok to punish (inflict harm)? It’s ok when you have explicitly stated what needs to be changed, why and how your increase of harm is justifiable. Absent all three parts, I’m convinced you’re just engaged in emotional masturbation in public and without consent of those around you.”

      You haven’t actually proven that JT is absent on all three parts, and it’s not even like those three ideas are totally correct anyways. Rather, you’ve just gone off on irrelevant rants that somehow show “look, people, JT thinks that people should take punishment into their own hands in such-and-such circumstance, that’s so stupid, lol!”

      Finally, baal, your last part is confusing, irrelevant, and has a nonsensical conclusion. Really though, I have to wonder- on what grounds do you justify the idea that “You might get compliance for a while but the punishees will be looking for an out or for a chance to give you pay back.”, and, furthermore, on what grounds does that establish that punishment doesn’t work, given the reasons for punishment that I provided earlier?

      • baal

        I’m short on time at the moment but will address your concerns. The first point I have is that your expanded definition in #1 is nongermane to the original question posed by Dan and Libby – when is it ok to punish morally. The emphasis is on moral. Your framing is from the standpoint of the justifications given for the criminal justice system.
        Also, based on a hasty glance at your blog, I suspect you bear personal ill will towards me or the idea that it’s wrongful to use harm to gain social benefits for your in-group members, i.e. I’ll be straining to read your comments with charity since you have a stake in defending the intentional use of social punishment (something I find immoral).

        • baal

          *later. (missed word, I have a huge problem with dropping words from sentences.)

        • Amyc

          I glanced at the godless teen blog as well, and I have no idea where you’re getting the idea that godlessteen harbors ill will against you or any of the ideas you espoused. Why does godlessteen have a “stake in defending the intentional use of social punishment?” And how did you possibly glean that from any of hir blog posts?

  • invivoMark

    Punishment serves four purposes:

    1) Deterrence for the perpetrator against repeat offense. (Perpetrator commits a crime, is punished; doesn’t want to risk punishment again.)

    2) Deterrence for others against repeating the perpetrator’s offense. (Your friend was punished for doing X. You don’t want to get punished, so you don’t do X.)

    3) Physically preventing the perpetrator from repeating the offense. (Keeping a criminal in prison keeps them from committing a crime.

    4) Retribution. (Them bastards hurt you, so now they’re gonna PAY!)

    Punishment should never be done for reason 4. Retribution is a stupid value, and it only serves to cause more damage. Punishment should be done primarily for reasons #1 and #2, and only #3 when necessary. This applies equally to criminal punishment and punishment of, e.g., friends for inadvertently hurting you.

    The only worthy goal of punishment is to modify behavior. That’s how we get people to be good to each other and improve each others’ lives, rather than hurting each other.

    I pretty much agree with most of your post, JT, except for the “punishment should fit the crime” part. I agree only insofar as reasons #1 and #2 are satisfied above. But some crimes don’t need punishment at all – rehabilitation works very well for many criminals, and for friends who hurt you, they usually know what they did wrong and you needn’t do anything at all about it.

    • JWawa

      The purpose of punishment is never to inflict harm. Rather it is to create new learning. Behavioral psychology tells us under what circumstances the consequences of actions can create such learning (learning being a change in behavior). From there, we might formulate some idea of when punishment is appropriate and how it should be administered. I won’t claim to have a good answer, but perhaps a good place to start might be that punishment is appropriate when an individual has engaged in behavior that is harmful and needs to learn to behave in less harmful ways. That being said, punishment is necessary but not sufficient to foster learning of those behaviors we might wish to elicit in our fellow citizens, as it can only teach the individual what NOT to do, and not what one SHOULD do. In this respect, modeling and encouraging more appropriate behaviors is complementary and necessary.

      The moral issue of punishment is that there can be no punishment that is completely harm free. and in that regard, we need exercise caution to minimize the harm to the offender while still deterring harmful behavior. How do we strike that balance? I don’t really know. This is just how I think about it (coming from a behavioral psychology background).

      • invivoMark

        Well, the purpose of punishment sometimes IS to inflict harm. It shouldn’t be, but that’s how some people view it (eye for an eye, and all that).

        Otherwise, your post is spot-on and I agree with it.

  • Lurkpuppy

    In terms of people in my life – I’m reading this as social punishment – I don’t tend to punish, as such. I feel that if I do that, I’m setting myself up as a moral arbiter, and I’m perfectly capable of being wrong about whether something is appropriate behaviour, or whether it’s appropriate to judge my friends (or, that is, make them feel crappy about something that often they already feel crappy about, since I can’t help judging them internally). I discuss. If something they said or did really bothers me, we can discuss it. That’s about as far as it gets for punishment.

    Often behaviour that might look like punishment is self-protection. For example, I don’t talk to my mother and I’m not sure if she sees this as punishment (from clues here and there I think she sees it as a temper tantrum). Regardless, it’s simply that talking to her is horrendously upsetting and after countless attempts at getting past this, I find it simply can’t be done as the situation stands. So I avoid talking to her in order to avoid being horrendously upset. This can be seen as punishment for abuse, and honestly the only difference is intent.

    Having said that, generally people in my life don’t tend to commit egregious moral failures. I’m not of a generation or a social group where I’m going to find someone disowning their kid for reasons of religion, for example, or failing to vaccinate through being an impressionable… [failure to find polite noun]. It’s not that they’re all saints – far from it – but the level of violation is, for the most part, pretty banal.

  • Robert B.

    The thing is, punishment is rarely the best way to encourage someone to alter their behavior, and it has side-effects. (And punishing someone just because they “deserve it” is reprehensible.) In my experience, if your relationship with someone is generally positive but they’re doing something you don’t like, the best way to change their behavior is just to point it out or ask them to stop. And if that doesn’t work, you probably don’t have any recourse that will work. (At least as far as changing the other person’s behavior goes – you still have self-defense-style options like breaking off the relationship.)

    Also, punishment works best when you have a recognized position of authority. That’s not usually the case in social situations, though sometimes a social group will recognize the authority of, say, the host of a party or the GM of a roleplaying game. Trying to punish someone who has no reason to recognize your authority comes off as aggression rather than justice, and earns bad responses accordingly.


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