Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why Retribution Is Immoral

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 11, 2010

We as a society commonly assume that the guilty are less deserving of life. The state administers the death penalty to those who commit serious crimes, and many people feel that this is justified. Using similar logic, some other people argue against the death penalty by saying that life imprisonment is a worse fate than death. This sort of thinking makes me wonder what goes on in people’s heads when they think that we need to punish criminals. If punishment is what you’re looking for, why do we not simply submit felons to torture for the rest of their lives?

The idea of torturing criminals may sound absurd. After all, they are still human. Torture would be out of the question. And yet, people are okay with the idea of submitting criminals to the death penalty (or life imprisonment) in order to punish them. This seems to be a contradiction. The concept of capital punishment is strange, to say the least.

One can think of plenty of good reasons for life imprisonment. A dangerous criminal should be kept away from society. But punishment is not necessary except as a deterrent. If it’s not preventing crime or helping out the victims, then it’s useless. And punishment certainly does not help the victims except to provide them with a sadistic sense of vengeance.

A proponent of the death penalty might say that the guilty need to be punished with death. This argument only makes sense if capital punishment is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. Although researching the subject is rather difficult, most evidence says that it is in fact not more effective. Since deterrence is the primary practical purpose of capital punishment, it appears that using the death penalty for its practical benefits is a waste of resources.

The argument that I most want to address is related to this idea of punishment. It states that murderers are guilty, and deserve to be punished. This argument for retribution is a popular argument, but at the same time it is horribly wrong.

Murderers, although they have committed an atrocity, are still people. Perhaps they don’t deserve the normal level of respect or dignity, but they certainly deserve life. The logic behind the argument for retribution is a serious glitch in human reasoning. A murderer has robbed another human being of life, so why should we make the problem even worse by continuing the killing? The “eye for an eye” system of retribution is primitive and outdated; continuing to follow such an archaic philosophy would be a mistake of epic proportions. We do not want to get revenge for its own sake; are we truly so sadistic? Our goal should be to maximize happiness, and this includes the happiness of the murderer.

Don’t get me wrong on this point. We should by all means prevent the murderer from causing further harm, and if that means a life sentence, then so be it. But mandatory execution is not justified, even for a murderer. The way to prevent suffering is most certainly not to cause more suffering.

It could be said that I have not yet addressed various other arguments in support of the death penalty. That is true, but not especially relevant. One of the most pervasive arguments out there is the argument for retribution. My purpose here is to explain why it is a terrible argument. Once it is addressed, many other pillars in support of the death penalty will topple as well. Most other arguments are insignificant in comparison to this one. Furthermore, the argument for retribution applies not just to capital punishment but to other facets of justice as well, and even to daily life; for example, look at the idea of revenge. Revenge is essentially just retribution by another name. It is generally irrational and tends to make the situation worse than it already is; fortunately, most people already recognize this. But when 65% of Americans still think that getting revenge for murder — albeit by a different name — is a good idea, you know something is wrong.

It would be wise to remember that the purpose of morality is to do good. Retribution, except as a deterrent, does no good. The evidence for capital punishment being an effective deterrent is minimal to nonexistent. It helps no one but the relatives of the victim, and only then if their petty feelings are soothed by the thought of another’s suffering.

It is argued by some that the murderer has lost his rights, so his suffering no longer matters. This argument is no less flawed, nor are its conclusions any less cruel. The murderer may have killed another person, but he is still human: he still has the same wants and needs that we all do. If murder is wrong then it is always wrong, even in response to a capital crime.

Using the death penalty as retribution is unjustifiable and immoral. Death causes great suffering; why should we cause even more death, leading to even more suffering? Killing is wrong, and it is no better when permitted by law. The concept of retribution is based on an archaic sense of ethics which is not only irrational, but goes so far as to compound the very suffering that it is intended to prevent.

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8 Responses to “Why Retribution Is Immoral”

  1. phynnboi said

    Some random comments:

    * What if, rather than killing the murderer, we force the murderer to save another life by, say, donating a kidney? Granted, that comes with its own problem (corruption), but for the sake of argument, let us ignore that. (This would be in addition to a jail sentence. My feeling is that there’s a non-trivial number of people who’d gladly part with a kidney if it’d give them the free ride to kill someone they particularly despised.)

    * In general, the desire for revenge seems to be a universal and instinctual response in all of us. Further, I’m unaware of any animal besides humans who seeks revenge, suggesting that revenge is actually based, at least in part, on higher brain functioning. This runs contrary to typical claims that revenge is “base” or “animalistic.” It seems to be part of what makes us human. There must be some reason evolution has left us with the instinct to seek revenge. My belief is, that reason is a good one.

    * Also, at one point you mention that the victim’s relatives’ “petty” feelings are soothed by killing the murderer. I wonder, when are feelings “petty” and when are they not “petty?” Why should we punish anyone for anything? It seems to me that the emotional reaction to crime is the primary reason we bother to punish people for committing it. If you didn’t feel anything about being stolen from, for instance, there’d be no impetus for your demanding they be punished. You wouldn’t care–it’d be no different than if someone breathed the same air you were breathing. 🙂

    • Your first proposition sounds like a good idea. That would actually have a positive effect on society.

      Regarding your second point: That reason probably is a good one, but only with respect to evolution; that is, revenge probably gives some sort of evolutionary advantage. I don’t think that we should base our morality on what is good for us evolutionarily. If revenge actually helps society, that’s one thing. If it helps a person’s gene pool, that’s something else.

      The feelings are petty because the victim gains nothing by killing the murderer. The only benefit that the victim gets out of the death penalty is that it might make him feel better. There are no concrete advantages.

      It’s true that if you didn’t care about being stolen from then you’d have no desire to punish the thief. But how does this relate to the moral status of punishment and retribution? My thesis in this essay is that the desire for retribution only does unnecessary harm.

  2. Pieter said

    I agree. On a number of grounds. I will focus on the moral aspect.

    In my ethical system (buddhism) killing is wrong. In some buddhist schools there is an exception though…. The case of the ‘lesser evil’: may you kill a murderer who is about to kill an entire village? Some schools of thought say it may be done, but under strict conditions: it must be done out of compassion (for the killer, who would otherwise suffer bad karmic consequences),
    and only if there are no other ways to prevent the crime. And of course, the “preventive killer” will suffer the karmic results himself: he may live longtime in hell. He has taken this burden on his shoulders to help the killer on his way to enlightment.

    A death penalty for a convicted murderer does not meet even a single one of these conditions. It is completely unnecessary and done with the wrong motives. Therefore it will only lead to negative consequences for those involved.

    @ Michael: “It helps no one but the relatives of the victim, and only then if their petty feelings are soothed by the thought of another’s suffering.”

    @ Phynnboi: “There must be some reason evolution has left us with the instinct to seek revenge. My belief is, that reason is a good one.”

    – Does a death penaly for a murderer really make the relatives of the victims feel better? Most people do not feel better after a revenge
    – And even if it does them make feel better, must the legal system do this? I think the world would look better with less revenge, not with more. And I am convinced that in the longer term the wellbeing and happiness of (relatives of) victims will be better after “foregiveness” or “acceptance” than after “revenge”.

    • I agree, it is possible that the death penalty doesn’t really make the relatives of the victim feel better. This is still further evidence that retribution is a bad idea.

      The right thing to do is to kill the killer, and suffer the consequences yourself? That’s an interesting concept. I don’t think it’s just to condemn someone to hell for trying to help someone else, but I do like the idea of murdering and suffering the consequences for the betterment of the greater good. It seems like that is one of the most altruistic things you can do.

  3. Pieter said

    The interesting and (to me) convincing aspects of the karmic thinking are:
    – causes will lead to effects. There are no causes without effects and vice versa. Good deeds will give an effect and bad deeds like wise
    – the killer cannot escape from his punishment. Therefore it is not necessary to take revenge, he will get his punishment anyway

    In the case of someone who kills for a greater good (prevention of even worse things)I think both karmic paths are not completed. Such a path consists of a subject (someone who performs the deed), an object (against who the action is done), an intention, an action and a effect. So let’s look at the “pre-emptive” killing.

    First the stopped criminal. Subject? yes. Object? yes. Intention? yes. Action and effect? No, because he is stopped in time.

    Now the “preventer”. Subject? yes. Object? yes. Intention? yes, but this is a difficult one, all depends on exactly what his intentions were! Action? yes. Effect? yes.

    In the above case, the karmic paths are not quite clear to me, although both look negative. I asked this question to a monk once and he was very clear: the ‘pre-emptive’ killer will absolutely suffer negative consequences.

    Now let’s look at the case of a killer who is sentenced to death. In this case it is very clear. Killer: Subject, object, intention, action, effect? All yes. Executioner: Subject, object, intention, action, effect? All yes.

    The killer has already done his harmful things. Why should the executioner follow him ??

  4. Pieter said

    @ Michael: I don’t think it’s just to condemn someone to hell for trying to help someone else, but I do like the idea of murdering and suffering the consequences for the betterment of the greater good. It seems like that is one of the most altruistic things you can do.

    Agree. I see it as warning that violence comes at a (steep) price.

  5. Anonymous said

    I totally get your point about retribution. After all, if it’s wrong to put pain on people, it’s always wrong, no exceptions.
    However, LWOP is also suffering and pain, and without a direction of rehabilitation, then there is no justice. I’ve heard stories that not only a sense of no more chances is terrible but I’ve also heard cases where some of those in LWOP would rather have the death penalty.

    I know it’s been a while since this article but I’m not sure if you’re aware about the Norway prisons. Norway actually focuses on rehabbing anyone. The worst sentence is 21 years (with review at the end), and get this.. Norway has one of the world’s lowest recidivism rates.
    And WHILE that’s the case, the prisons are humane. They treat people like people.
    I feel that the US should try going into this direction. Harder maybe, but it may be possible if we try.

    The humane program is very interesting and it makes sense! If we go back to why people have revenge, it could connect to that.
    Think about it.. punishment is just… realistically just the same act that’s no different than putting pain on people for any reason and/or no reason. So punishment might actually be useless.. or perhaps making things worse. So if we treat people like… people, then people may more likely come out as people, rather than animals. That could be why Norway’s system is so low on repeating offenders.

  6. Krystof said

    I just read this article and it made very furious. VERY VERY FURIUS!!!! Because what you said is super-wrong! Maximize the happiness of the murder?!?! NEVER! MINIMIZE his happiness. Hi robbed someone of human rights, time to even the odds. Murders do not deserve to experience happiness ever again. They are not humans. They are monsters. You absolutely wrong to say “they are still human beings” because they are NOT. To be a human being, you gotta have conscience and a good heart. Those people don’t have it so they don’t count as human beings and treating them as such is a biggest perversion of justice. It is the victim that should be given respect, not the offender! How can you lack empathy for the victim?! By maximizing the happiness of an offender, that is exactly what you are doing.

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