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Just Desert: The Fair Punishment Debacle Essay

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Updated: Sep 1st, 2021

“What goes around comes around.” This seems like a serious enough conjecture, one we often tell ourselves when someone wrongs us. But what seems most interesting about the idea of ‘just desert’ is the philosophy behind it. ‘Just desert’ is a term used to describe what a person rightly deserves and is most often seen in terms of criminal justice. If a crime is committed, punishment is deserved and the debate boils down to what form of punishment best services this crime. There are many arguments both for and against the idea, but it remains just that: an idea. In due respect, just punishment is always an ideological Utopian belief that a crime receives what he/she deserves. This does not always happen. What is ‘just desert’ in its political and criminal context and where does it actually come from?

Plato wrote his highly effective Republic, using Socrates as an example of justice in ancient Greek politics. Socrates about his trial for apparently misleading scholars in believing in gods other than what Greek religion saw fit. The dialogue is both a jibe at justice and at what we have come to believe is the war against good and evil. It brings to light the difficulty in determining what is right and wrong when it comes to philosophy and also in terms of justice.

When Moses brought forth the tablets of the Ten Commandments, they became more of a basic guideline for responsible societal behavior rather than a religious ideal. First and foremost in order to protect all members of the public from undue harm, they set about creating a set of norms by which society would be able to control deviant behavior in the interests of everyone instead of a select few. “From the Republic, written by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, to A Theory of Justice, written by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, every major work on ethics has held that justice is part of the central core of morality.”1 Justice in this case means giving to each what they deserve.

And that in believing the state to be most qualified to decide what each deserves, the power of leadership and the decision to punish lies within the confines of the lawgivers. But as this argument ensues it becomes clear that there is one major question that is not answered. Justice needs to be administered and who has the power or wisdom to do this fairly? “When such conflicts arise in our society, we need principles of justice that we can all accept as reasonable and fair standards for determining what people deserve.”(Ibid).

While justice is indeed necessary, another argument is put forward from a religious point of view: “As people living in God’s grace, our notion of justice should be defined not by deserving but by serving. Why is it then that the mere phrase “social justice” is enough to make some of us stand up and leave the room? Perhaps because it carries with it a lot of verbal baggage—loaded words like “advocacy” and “activism.” We think that social justice is political or that it involves taking sides.”2 Where then do we draw the line? If a person is to receive what they deserve in terms of what they have done, someone has to carry the responsibility.

Van Harmelen, the writer of the above quote believes that it is not for us to judge, but for God to. All things considered, there still needs to be a level of control when it comes to enforcing norms in an otherwise normless society. “The most familiar anti-desert argument derives from extreme doubts about the robustness of human agency. According to it, the influence of natural and social factors such as genes and environment on people’s actions and traits completely undermines all desert-claims.”3

Clearly, the ancient Greek philosophers and the modern ethic searching politics differ in terms of this belief structure. But supposing we could, in fact, find one fair administration of justice, how would they need to be? They would need to be completely free of bias, entirely objective, and almost devoid of self. While Plato and the Republic saw Socrates arguing that if he was guilty and so tried or convicted, he should be punished for whatever the state saw his evidence to be. Van Harmelen and Moriarty say that who should dictate whether or not Socrates was, in fact, guilty of a legitimate crime?

Indeed the question of the methodology behind justice is still a contested issue, there still leaves no doubt in the belief and understanding there has to a certain degree of control when it comes to justice and crime. In my own capacity, I believe both for and against just punishment but it is not easy to prove either. In the end, we have to leave it in the hands of those administering it and hope they have the publics’ best interests at heart. That is, after all, why we vote them into power.

Sources

Boehme Van Harmelen, R. 2005. “Just Deserts and Justice.” The Banner. Web.

Moriarty, Jeffrey. 2005. The Epistemological Argument Against Deserts.” Bowling Green University. Web.

Valesquez, Andre, Meyer and Shanks. 1990. “”. Markkula Center For Applied Ethics [Santa Clara University]. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University: Justice and Fairness, 1990.
  2. Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen: Just Deserts and Justice. 2005.
  3. Jeffrey Moriarty, 2005.
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