Rhyme And Punishment

An essay by Dave Van Domelen, copyright 2013

    Discussion of the recent (late November, 2013) diplomatic maneuvering around Iran got me thinking again on the nature of punishment and the motives for it, and I decided to try to fix my thoughts in written form.

    Why do we punish people or nations? "Because they did something bad" is certainly a general reason, but it's not enough to understand the form the punishment takes. Why sanctions instead of bombings? Why probation or shock time instead of whipping? It's a pretty complex set of questions, but since this is the Internet I will attempt to offer a simplified model. ;)

    As far as I can tell, the reasoning behind punishment is based in one or more of the following categories: behavioral modification, deterrence, threat reduction, and an excuse to hurt people. What your main motivation is will shape not only the kind of punishment you mete out, but whether the subject can ever get out from under punishment.

Behavioral Modification

   This is the high-minded goal of a lot of punishment, from disciplining your child to imposing sanctions on an entire nation. "You did a bad thing, we are going to make things unpleasant for you until you show you've learned not to do that bad thing again." There has to be a reasonable expectation that the punishment will be lifted, or there's no motivation to change behavior. If your criminal record will forever make it impossible to get a good job or a place to live, if the trade sanctions won't be lifted until after everyone involved has died of old age...why change your behavior? Especially if continuing to be bad will at least let you mitigate the effects of the punishment?

    If you are honest about using punishment to improve the punished, you have to be willing to end the punishment.


    This is a somewhat more cynical view, assuming that any person or nation that commits a crime will never change...but that others can be scared into not copying them. Harsher punishments make sense in this view, and permanence is highly desirable: how will the punished serve as an example to others if they're no longer being punished? It's not enough to flog someone, the flogging must leave ugly scars. Jail time isn't enough, there needs to be an eternal scarlet letter affixed to the person so they can never be free of punishment. And sanctions on a nation will not end until the entire government is removed from power. Only death can set you free...because part of your punishment is to be a warning to others of what horrible fate awaits them if they step out of line.

    No matter how much a person may talk about using punishment to change the behavior of a person or a nation, if they keep finding reasons to not lift the punishment, they're at best in deterrence mode.

Threat Reduction

    If the deterrence view is cynical, this one is downright paranoid. Not only will the criminal person or nation not change, there's no real way to convince anyone else to avoid going down the path of crime, so it's best to remove any threat from the one you caught so that when someone else goes bad you at least won't be facing two problems at once. From punishment of children so harsh it breaks their spirit to bombing a nation flat, the goal here is to be "safe" from the punished entity. (Not that this necessarily works well in practice.) The victims of a crime tend to land in this category, understandably, and playing on fears can get most people to support this reason for punishment. Lock criminals away forever and we'll be safe. Starve Iran to death and we'll be safe. Train up your kids to be obedient thralls and we'll be safe.

    The very idea of ending a punishment is antithetical to the threat reduction view. If the punishment ends, the threat returns, simple as that.

An Excuse

    Sadly, not everyone who needs their behavior modified is punished...sometimes they're the ones doing the punishing. The nations crying the loudest for sanctions against someone may include that nation's past victims, but the group probably also includes nations who would like to have attacked the punished nation directly but lack the means. They want to hurt a historic rival, and if they can get the international community to do their dirty work, great. On the individual level, people who like to be pointlessly cruel might be legally barred from doing so in most cases, but what if they can find a way to force someone out of their home because they committed a crime decades ago? Now the law is their tool. Now they can ruin lives by proxy, without worrying about getting in trouble for it. Sure, it's not always possible to use legal punishment to hurt a specific target, but if your motive is just to be able to hurt someone, you're all set.

    Almost no one will actually admit to this reason, but since they enjoy punishing people, they will be very reluctant to let any punishment lapse. They will dress it up as deterrent or threat reduction (or even behavior modification if they think they can keep a straight face about it), but will only ever change punishment to make it harsher.


    As an afterthought, the people in charge of meting out punishment may not care at all about any of the above. They just don't have a horse in the race. But they find an angle that will help them get elected, and play to it. If the current climate is fairly bloodthirsty, a threat reduction stance will be pretty successful, while a behavior modification stance will get you booed off stage.

    Obviously, if the politician agrees with the position they're riding, it can be a little more effective. But really, it doesn't matter (for instance) if Netanyahu really wants to burn all his neighbors to the bare rock, his constituency wants that. So he'll support it. Nor does it matter if a lawmaker really thinks unending life-ruining punishment will actually benefit society in the least, so long as it's what enough of the voters want (or can be made to want).

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