Friday, April 9, 2021

Punishment, criticism and authority

It is always unjust to punish without the right kind of authority over those that one punishes.

Sometimes that authority may be given to us by them (as in the case of a University’s authority over adult students, or maybe even in the case of mutual authority in friendship) and sometimes it may come from some other relationship (as in the case of the state’s authority over us). But in any case, such authority is sparse. The number of entities and persons that have this sort of authority over us is several orders of magnitude smaller than the number of people in society.

This means that typically when we learn that someone is behaving badly, we do not have the authority to punish them. I wonder what this does or does not entail.

Clearly, it does not mean that we are not permitted to criticize them. Criticism as such is not punishment, but the offering of evaluative information. We do not need any authority to state a truth to a random person (though there may be constraints of manners, confidentiality, etc.), including an evaluative truth. But what if that truth is foreseen to hurt? If it is merely foreseen but not intended to hurt, this is still not punishment (it’s more like a Double Effect case). But what if it is also intended to hurt?

Well, not every imposition of pain is a punishment. Nor does every imposition of pain require authority. Suppose I see that you are asleep a hundred meters from me, and I see a deadly snake, for whose bite there is no cure, approaching you. I pull out an air rifle and shoot you in the leg, intending to cause you pain that wakes you up and allows you to escape the snake. Likewise, it could be permissible to offer intentionally hurtful criticism in order to change someone’s behavior without any need for authority (though it may not be often advisable).

But there is a difference between imposing a hurt and doing so punitively. In the air rifle case, the imposition of pain is not punitive. But in the case of criticism, it is psychologically very easy to veer from imposing the criticism for the sake of reformation to a retributive intention. And to impose pain retributively—even in part, and even by truthful words—without proper authority is a violation of justice.

There are two interesting corollaries of the above considerations.

First, we get an apparently new argument against purely reformatory views of punishment. For it seems that the imposition of pain through accurate criticism in order to reform someone’s behavior would count as punishment on a purely reformatory view, and hence would have to require proper authority (unless we deny the thesis I started with, that punishment without authority is unjust).

Second, we get an interesting asymmetry between punishment and reward that I never noticed before. There is nothing unjust about rewarding someone whom we have no authority over when they have done a good thing (though in particular cases it could violate manners, be paternalistic, etc.) In particular, there need be nothing wrong with what one might call retributive praise even in the absence of authority: praise intended to give a pleasure to the person praised as a reward for their good deeds. But for punishment, things are different. This is no surprise, because in general harsh treatment is harder to justify than pleasant treatment.

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