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The Concept Of Punishment

Punishment is not an exclusive province of the law. Parents punish their children, and members of private associations punish their wayward fellows. Like most concepts, "punishment" has no rigid boundaries. One useful way to understand its central aspects and uncertain borderlines is to identify the features of typical instances of punishment, and to inquire how far their absence would lead one to say that something other than punishment is taking place.

Typical and atypical instances. In typical cases of punishment, persons who possess authority impose designedly unpleasant consequences upon, and express their condemnation of, other persons who are capable of choice and who have breached established standards of behavior.

Responsible agents. Punishment is a practice that is performed by, and directed at, agents who are responsible in some sense. God and humans can punish; hurricanes cannot. People, but not faulty television sets, are fit subjects of punishment. A higher level of capacity is required to impose punishment than is minimally necessary to make one subject to it. To be subject to it, one need have only sufficient mental control over one's actions to refrain from disfavored behavior, a degree of control that quite small children and some animals possess. To punish, one must be able consciously to inflict harmful consequences because of a wrong that has been committed.

Unpleasant consequences. Punishment involves designedly harmful consequences that most people would wish to avoid. Medical treatment and other forms of therapy may also be painful, but their unpleasantness is an unfortunate contingent fact; pleasing or painless substitutes, if available, would be preferred. Unpleasantness is, on the other hand, part of the basic nature of punishment; if the response to those who break rules was to give them something they wanted, such as more money, one would not consider the response to be punishment, even if the aim were to reduce future violations.

Condemnation. The unpleasant consequences of punishment are usually preceded by a judgment of condemnation; the subject of punishment is explicitly blamed for committing a wrong. The close link between punishment and condemnation is attenuated in some instances. When a teacher punishes an entire class because one child has been naughty, he may not be condemning the other members of the class. The teacher's choice of collective punishment will reflect his belief either that the group as a whole is capable of constraining the actions of its members or that one student will hesitate to be the source of mischief for his classmates; but the teacher need not suppose that all the other members of the class are actually partly responsible for the particular naughty act. A similar analysis applies to vicarious punishment. Punishing one person for the sins of another may serve a purpose even if the victim of punishment is not condemned for the specific wrong.

For certain violations of law, condemnation may be wholly absent, except in the most formal sense. Some actions may be deemed antisocial and worth discouraging by unpleasant consequences even if no one really blames the persons who perform them. This is perhaps exemplified by the attitude American society now takes toward most parking violations. For a different reason, a reflective judgment of condemnation may be absent when very young children are punished. Parents may evince anger and impose simple penalties in the belief that this is the most effective way to teach acceptable behavior. They may thus treat their children as blameworthy, even though they doubt that the children are experienced enough actually to merit blame for performing the offending actions.

Condemnation is not in itself usually considered punishment. If members of a society regarded a formal condemnation as extremely shameful, one might think of that as a possible punishment in itself rather than merely a complement of more substantial consequences; this discussion will adopt the common assumption that punishment involves more than condemnation.

Authority. Punishment is imposed by people who have authority to do so—authority conferred by legal rule, associational standard, or social morality. A father can punish his own small children, but he cannot punish a neighbor's child unless the neighbor has given him power to do that. Only public officials can punish a thief for breaking the law. Authority may be conceived in a somewhat extended sense, whereby one can speak of a person's being punished by the community when his offensive behavior is met by the negative informal reactions of its members.

Standards. Punishment ordinarily follows some breach of established rules of behavior; the notion that people should have fair warning as to what behavior is punishable, and to what degree, is now an established principle of most legal systems. Yet, especially in informal family settings, people may be punished for doing things that they should have realized were wrong, even though they were not warned in advance about that specific sort of behavior. Even then, one can usually point to some relevant, more general standard that the children have been taught, such as taking care of family property, not harming brothers and sisters, and not disturbing parents. Many legal systems also contain some standards of misbehavior that are quite open-ended. Much more extraordinary is punishment of persons for actions they had no reason to suppose were wrong at the time they committed them.

Misperceptions. The assumption thus far has been that those who impose punishment, and the community at large, perceive circumstances as they really are. However, people may be woefully mistaken about critical facts. An innocent person may be punished because he is thought guilty, or all epileptics may be punished in the belief that having that disease evidences extreme moral fault. Misperceptions may also occur because of conscious manipulations by those aware of the actual facts. If officials successfully persuade others that a woman they know to be innocent is guilty, her condemnation and imprisonment will, in the public perception, constitute genuine punishment. Whether the knowledgeable officials should regard this as an instance of (unjust) punishment or something else is debatable. The crucial inquiry, in any event, is not whether what follows such deviations from the bases for imposing punishment can accurately be called punishment, but whether deviations of this sort can ever be morally justified, a matter analyzed below.

Legal punishment and the criminal law. Parts of the civil law authorize punitive consequences, but in advanced legal systems, legal punishment is linked to the criminal law. That law consists of prohibitions of antisocial behavior backed by serious sanctions. Not every criminal conviction is necessarily followed by punishment—alternative dispositions are often possible—but a set of mandatory rules that did not provide for punishing of violators would not be part of the criminal law. The meaning and possible justifications of legal punishment are, therefore, very closely related to the meaning and possible justifications of the criminal law.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPunishment - The Concept Of Punishment, Moral Justifications And Legal Punishment, Justifications For Punishment And The Criminal Law