Friday, March 28, 2008

Crime and punishment

Consider this valid argument:

  1. If you deserve F from me, then F is owed[note 1] by me to you. (Premise)
  2. If I owe F to you, then F is good for you. (Premise)
  3. Therefore, if you deserve punishment from me, then punishment is good for you. (By 1 and 2)

Are the premises true? Where F is a reward or praise, (1) is true. There is some plausibility to the idea that the structure of punishment mirrors that of praise, and if so then (1) is true at least in the case where F is punishment, which is all I need for the argument.

Premise (2) has something plausible about it. How could I owe you a negative debt—that would be a case of your owing me something?

Here is another argument. Start with the following assumption:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally impose an overall harm on another when nobody has a non-Cambridge benefit from this harm. (Premise)
Now suppose George, Jeff and Philippa are the only persons in existence (this is a per impossibile supposition since God exists necessarily), and suppose that they are persons who have no afterlife (death is the end of existence). Suppose George murders Jeff. Then it is appropriate for Philippa to punish George. Moreover, it is appropriate for her to do so on retributive grounds—she has strong reason to punish George even if George poses no danger to her and even if George is unlikely to repent of the crime due tot he punishment. Punishing George imposes a harm on George, and does not benefit Philippa (unless punishing George is good for independent reasons, in which case she is benefited by doing a virtuous action, virtue being its own reward; however, this benefit cannot be one that is cited in justification of the action, since that would be viciously circular). But the punishment is not wrong. Hence, George must also be receiving a benefit from the punishment, besides the harm.

I do incline to the view that retributive punishment is non-instrumentally good for the person punished. I am suspicious of the first argument—it's too easy—and the second might be question-begging against many opponents. But I wanted to put these arguments out there.


David said...

When you say that the structure of punishment "mirrors" the structure of praise, there is an ambiguity. Does this mean that what is true of the structure of punishment is true of the structure of the structure of praise, or rather that the structures resemble each other, but in a way that allows different predicates to apply to them? A mirror image resembles its original, but reverses right and left. Your argument needs the first sense; in the second sense, it could be true that if you deserve punishment, it is bad for you; but the structures of praise and punishment could still correspond in some systematic way.

Alexander R Pruss said...

My intuition is just that there is a structural parallel. It could well be that some items in the parallel are reversed. Indeed, some clearly are reversed: uncontroversially, in retributive punishment, a prima facie bad is imposed; in reward, a prima facie good is imposed. Likewise uncontroversially, some things are not reversed: both reward and punishment serve justice. This is like in a mirror, which intuitively swaps left and right but doesn't swap top and bottom (why not is a fine question that there has been some publication about). So a basic intuition I have here is that the basic structure is the same, but with some "signs" or "arrows" reversed.

I use the structural parallel intuition to argue for the claim that just as the person to whom the reward is owed is the agent to be rewarded, so too the person to whom the punishment is owed is the agent to be punished. I think this argument needs a bit of expansion. Who else could be the person to whom the punishment is owed? The punisher? That seems implausible. It just doesn't seem that I owe it to myself to punish you, even if there is such a thing as a debt to self (I am sympathetic to that). The victim? That seems the most plausible alternative, and would be a mirroring of the following sort: reward is given to the benefactor and owed to the benefactor; punishment is given to the malefactor and owed to the malefactor's victim. People do in fact talk this way. My own feeling is that this idea may be related to the repugnant (to me) Nietzschean account of punishment on which the victim's schadenfreude-based pleasure in seeing the suffering of the criminal literally compensates the victim.

Here's an argument that punishment is not owed to the victim. There will be cases of attempted murder where the means are such that the victim simply laughs at their ineffectiveness, and is not actually harmed (is not placed in any objective danger), but where nonetheless the criminal intended the means to be successful. If it is not absurd (as in the case of magical means) to think that the means could succeed, then a crime of attempted murder may well have occurred. But we can imagine cases where the victim knows with complete certainty that the means are inadequate to the murder, but a not unreasonable criminal believes that they are adequate, and attempts murder with these means, unsuccessfully. If the victim laughs this off, it does not seem that the victim needs to be compensated. But nonetheless attempted murder has been committed, and punishment is deserved.

Is it to the community that this is owed? This is plausible, but I think there would be reason for punishment even if there were no community.

Here's one way to argue that the community is not entity to which the punisher owes the duty of punishing the malefactor: Suppose per impossibile that there were no God, and suppose that George murdered everybody but himself, thereby ensuring that there is no community. It seems to me that there would be an additional evil in the fact that now George is unpunished, and should George suffer punishment by the pains of remorse, that would be a good--but since there is no longer a community, it seems like the community is not essential to the value of punishment. (Maybe one can argue that it is not essential to the value of punishment but is essential to the obligation of punishment. But it is simpler to see both as rooted in the same thing.)

But there is also a stronger way to take my structural parallel idea, and this is that there is a parallel in the persons involved in the structure of justification, while possibly reversal in some of the values/disvalues involved. Thus, just as reward is justified in light of what is owed to the agent, so too the punishment is justified in light of what is owed to the agent.

Robert said...

What about the premise that what is owed to you is good for you?

It seems to me that this may not be the case. Praise, for instance, can be quite bad for people who have a disordered love of self (because it leads them to sin).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Nice point. But if praise is bad for x, should we still praise x?

Suppose we say "yes". I want to still emphasize that the praise has to be good in some way for the recipient, while being bad in another way. If so, then my premise should be clarified as saying that what I owe someone has to be in some respect good for her, and the conclusion is merely that just punishment is in some respect good for the person punished. (That punishment is in some respect bad is clear; that is why it is not crazy to try to flee punishment.)

Robert said...

Alexander Pruss,

Thanks. I suspect that your distinction is the proper one to make.

I'm having trouble deciding in what respect praise is good for a person.

Praise and honor seem to be external goods. In the vein of the Aristotelian or Thomistic analysis of praise and honor, we are praised or honored for the sake of a virtue or excellence which we possess. Praise and honor are really external testimonies of the excellence of a person.

So, the question is, what good does praise do for a person?

In the case of God, our praise and honor is due because of His surpassing excellence. But, it would be awkward to say that it is "good for Him." After all, our praise adds nothing to Him.

But is praise different in the context of mortals praising mortals?

If our excellence is a participation in the supreme excellence of God, would that suggest a similar account must be made with regards to praise of mortals?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It seems to me to be a bad thing to have a bad reputation and a good thing to have a good reputation.

One might talk of the narrow and broad welfare of a person. The properties that might make up the narrow welfare of a person are intrinsic properties (such as being virtuous, feeling pleasure, etc.), but there is also the broad welfare of the person which additionally includes some non-intrinsic properties, such as not being an orphan (one is directly worse off for one's parents being dead), or one's friends being happy. Praise, then, will pertain to broad welfare but not narrow welfare.

In this terminology, we can read Aquinas as saying that the welfare of those that God loves is a part of God's broad welfare, and since God loves everyone, we benefit God (in the broad sense) whenever we benefit any neighbor.

Our praise of God doesn't contribute to God's narrow welfare, since that is unchangeable and identical to himself (by divine simplicity). But it might contribute to his broad welfare. In fact, it does in the following sense at least: it is narrowly good for me to praise God; God loves me; hence what is good for me is broadly good for God; hence, my praising God is broadly good for God (and narrowly good for me).

Robert said...

Thanks for the responses. I think I see how this works.