Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Justice, Revenge, and Punishment

When we say "We are going to make an example of him", what do we mean?

What is the purpose of inflicting pain and violence on others in the name of "justice"?

Revenge is Payback

Should an angry parent be spanking a child?  Is the spanking about revenge or helping the child become a better person?  Is the parent working through their frustration or helping the child to think morally?

Is the grownup inflicting pain through spanking going to be a better person for the act?

What is the effect on the child to know that anger expressed as violence drives its pain?  What lesson is really being taught to the child?

Why would we think its wrong when a stranger spanks our child but assume its right when we do?

How is society different when it inflicts pain on an individual who commits a crime?  When society acts in anger and revenge does society become better?

Irony or hypocrisy?
Are humans more likely to stop their criminal behavior because they have had violence or pain inflicted upon them?

Punishment is too often about revenge.

Retaliation may be momentarily gratifying, but it is not a sound basis for law or education.

Retaliation is about spite and vindictiveness.  Taking joy in the delivering pain to others dehumanizes us.

Increasing the severity of punishment makes us feel like we are hurting the criminal.  We desire to inflict pain upon them.  When our law becomes about revenge, we lower ourselves to the level of the crime.  When we  use our anger and pain as the tool of expressing justice, we subvert it.

Means to and End

The purpose of of punishment is to stop a child or criminal from actions that are bad for themselves or society.  The purpose of punishment should never be so that the victim of bad behavior gets vengeance.  Vengeance is morally wrong.

There are four kinds of punishment; physical, verbal, withholding, and penalty.

Physical and verbal punishment have been shown in research to not work (see here and here).  Physical and verbal punishment may make us feel better, but simply do not accomplish the goal of justice.

Withholding and penalty punishments have been shown to be strong behavior modifiers.  Systems of justice based on withholding and penalty create a better society for individuals to live in.

People get better when they acknowledge they did wrong and strive to change.  This change toward better behavior ought to be the goal of justice.

Change comes from the inside.  It is our desire to be better that engenders change.  Change enforced from the outside rarely works.

Physical Punishment

A swat on the bottom is a mild physical punishment.  While it may do no permanent physical harm, it does not help the child develop a conscience. Instead, it teaches that physical violence is an acceptable way of dealing with problems.

Many of us grew up with being spanked and think we came out "OK". When you were spanked, how often was anger involved?  When you spank, how often is your desire for revenge involved?  What is the real lesson that was taught?  If we look at our own souls in the mirror can we not say there could have been a better way?  Is using violence to solve problems what we want to teach our children?

If this is wrong, why are other body parts right?
Parents who use physical punishment are setting an example of using violence to settle problems or solve conflicts, Children imitate their parents’ behavior. When parents use physical punishment, children are more likely to use violent acts to settle their conflicts with others.

Consider that if there is a way to teach the child that does not involve violence, why are you using violence?  

Teachers are able to maintain disciplined classrooms without resorting to violence.  It shows that there are other effective means of achieving discipline.

Physical punishment of criminals also has been shown not to be effective in changing behaviors.  Physical pain allows the individual to think they have "paid for the error".  It isolates the error behavior and the punishment as a single transaction.  Physical punishment frees a person from feelings of remorse.  Without remorse, there is no change to behavior.

When thinking about physical punishment, is may help to remember an ironic old saying "The beatings will continue until morale improves."  Morale or morality never improves because of violence.

Verbal Punishment
His concern is not justice.

Verbal aggression is just words right?  As the nursery rhyme says "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me".  This rhyme simply is not factual.

Words have the power to shape our minds.  Words can do great good or evil upon our persons.  Research shows children who are verbally abused are almost twice as likely to become juvenile delinquents or adult criminals.

Verbal aggression toward adults frequently leads to more violent acts by the criminal.  Telling someone off, giving them a piece of our minds is about our desire to express our emotion and not about changing the behavior of the person who did the crime.

Verbal punishment is too often really a form of bullying.  Violence of the mind is still violence upon our person.


A time for reflection.
Withholding could be a "time out" or a "take away".  When an action or object of desire is removed from a child they have to deal with their desire as a result of the punishment.  Dealing with desire for a toy or freedom to play sets up a situation where the child can evaluate what they have done.  Time for self reflection is where we develop our conscious and learn to control our will.

Isolating a person from what it wants give it time to reflect.  Isolating a child is not about punishment, rather about education.  When we give a child a "time out" we help them become better.

Removing criminals from society is an effective means of giving them time to reflect on their crime.  Putting a bunch of criminals together in a crowded room often can subvert the purpose of isolation, however the failings of our current criminal justice system are not the topic of this blog entry.   Removing criminals from society also protects society from the bad actors.

Sometimes a person can never learn to be better; perhaps they are mentally ill or psychopathic.  In these cases it may never be possible to return a criminal person to normal society.  For the protection society  the criminals permanent removal is a necessary tragedy for both society and the criminal.

Penalty Punishment

Is this Justice?  Will it make their society better?
Consequences teach responsibility.  The world in which we live are full of consequences.  Often using the real world consequences of actions can help motivate us to change our behaviors.

Penalty punishments are about  using consequences, results of our actions, to change our behavior.  Penalty punishments are not about doing violence upon our persons or minds.

To be effective, penalty punishments must engage the person to do better.  The errant child or convicted criminal needs to see they must change what they do in the future.

To be effective, penalty punishments must relate the penalty to the offense.  If one doesn't wash their clothes, then they must either be naked or wear dirty clothes.  If one doesn't brush their teeth, their teeth will rot.  If one doesn't do their homework, they will fail in school.

Deterrence and Discipline

If our goal is deterrence then it is not the severity of the punishment, but the certainty of the punishment that matters.

If a person thinks they can get away with crime, they are more apt to try it.  If a person is fairly sure they will get caught, they will be deterred.

The death penalty only stops people from doing a crime if they think they will be caught.  A less severe penalty will also deter if the potential criminal knows they will be caught.

Severe punishment is about revenge.

Teaching discipline through non-violent means
There is a world of difference between "discipline" and "punishment".

Discipline is about learning to control one's actions.  Discipline can be learned without punishment.  Discipline can be learned by example, practice and reason.  We can teach our children discipline through sports, chores, and the example of our lives.

When we use the world "discipline" as a synonym for "punishment" we are often trying to justify to ourselves our desire to do violence.

The more effective we are at teaching good behaviors, the less need there is for punishment.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in justice as well as medicine.

So where do you draw the line between justice and revenge?

Note: If you think spanking is a good thing, here is a pamphlet used to train teachers about effective discipline from the Virginia Tech.

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