Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Crime and Punishment

On the blog Pensate Omnia, I find these fascinating musings:
SO WHAT'S WRONG WITH BEATINGS?: Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking about the nature of violence in the following manifestations: domestic abuse (ranging from hitting a spouse to spanking a kid), corporal punishment in school, and the physical punishment of criminals (cf. putting a miscreant in the stocks, or subjecting him to the public rod).

In general, modern man finds this sort of thing reprehensible (is there anything less enlightened than a principal with a board on his wall?).

I haven't the time to fill out my thoughts, but I am struck by one unifying theme: physical harm -- as opposed to spiritual or mental -- is what we avoid, as if it were self-evidently terrible. Certainly, there are ways in which inflicting physical pain can be concomitant with spiritual and mental abuse, but is it always wrong to use physical pain as a motivator, force for reformation, or punishment? And, more importantly, what does it show us about the presuppositions of our moral code if we consider the flesh to be the most sacred (i.e. that which, by default, we should protect from harm above all else)?
I've puzzled over the same questions myself sometimes. If someone proposed that certain crimes be punished by 30 or 100 lashes with a whip, we would think it horribly uncivilized and barbaric, not to mention a Cruel and Unusual Punishment in Violation of the Constitution. But no one -- well, hardly anyone -- blinks when a man is sentenced to five years in prison merely because he possessed five grams of crack, even though he might suffer sexual abuse that is more of a physical violation than a mere beating.

By what logical principle is imprisonment acceptable but whipping is not? Because whipping causes physical pain? But prison quite often involves physical pain as well, depending on the disposition of the guards and other prisoners, and it by definition involves physical restraint. Moreover, it's question-begging; the whole question is why it would be uncivilized to cause brief and intense physical pain, but perfectly normal to cause long-lasting physical and mental distress via imprisonment.

So what's wrong with physical pain anyway? Most of us don't like it very much -- i.e., it causes us disutility -- but most people wouldn't like being trapped behind bars for years on end either. So both types of punishment cause a great deal of disutility to the person being punished. Why is one form of disutility treated as per se off-limits?

Moreover, these various forms of disutility are commensurable in some fashion: If you asked 1000 people convicted of possessing crack whether they would prefer 5 years in jail or X number of lashes with the whip, there would be some number for X at which a substantial number would choose the lashes. Why not at least allow them the choice?

What about rehabilitation and recidivism? It might well be easier for a thief or drug user to put his life back together after a brief physical punishment than after 5 corrosive years behind bars.

* * *

I'm not advocating for physical punishments here. I don't know what the answers are. I'm just raising the questions. Because the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as odd that we often think ourselves so superior to our ancestors or to Muslim countries because we don't use more intense forms of physical punishment, while at the same time we put even non-violent drug offenders in prison for lengthy terms knowing that they might be subject to prison rape. Which system of punishment is really more cruel?

And what does it say about us that we shrink in horror from inflicting momentary pain on someone's body, but don't hesitate to inflict life-long pain and demoralization on someone's soul?


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