Is punishment justified if it was attributed to an immoral act? Is the degree of punishment dependent on the gravity of the offense against morality? In the first place, what constitutes an immoral act? There are so many questions and so many arguments surrounding the concept of punishment. Everything boils down to punishment as a measure and consequence of a wrongdoing. Now, we ask again: What acts are classified as wrongdoings? The concept of what is wrong and what is right goes hand in hand with the concept of being moral or immoral. Rightness and wrongness are more measureable terms because they are based on actual and written rules. Morality and immorality on the other hand, are more difficult to assess and determine because these values may not be written or codified, but are simply ingrained into the value system of a society or a culture. Before we proceed to a discourse on more specific intentions and reasons for punishment we should proceed with the analysis of two opposite approaches to punishment (namely, capital punishment) and on their basis propose our own vision.
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Hook (Moral matters, p. 133) argues that there should be two exceptions in the matter concerning death sentence as a capital form of punishment. The first relates to the situation when defendant convicted of murder was sentenced to life. According to Hook he/she should have possibility to choose between death sentence and life. The author claims that notwithstanding the fact that some jurists and moralists claim that death punishment is immoral or even not effective in terms of the role punishment should serve capital punishment chosen consciously by a certain person should enter into action. The second exception for the capital punishment according to Hook is the case when a person commits a murder again after his/her imprisonment for a murder. According to Hook if punishment in form of imprisonment does not have affect on a person, then it means that he/she while sane has certain psychological or moral deviation that make him deserve capital punishment. All moral sentiments are in this case damaging for society.
Narveson (1999) claims that moral norms embedded in legislation should follow universal norms so as to say are applicable to all persons and situations. They are not subjective or applicable from time to time or by somebody’s desire but instead should serve the role of universal rules. These assumptions challenge the notion of moral relativism which is wide-spread today. This approach is grounded on the need of elaboration of effective and comprehensive framework for ensuring citizen’s rights and securities.
In my view the theoretical positions of Hook and Narveson are different one from each other. The first uses pragmatic argumentation to make some exceptions to the capital punishment in the basis of some concrete and reasonable premises. They are particularistic since they fail to follow the universal notion of morality embedded in laws. For instance, Hook’s proposition to apply capital punishment for those who committed murder twice neglects the problems of prison system which sometimes even embitters people and pushes them to come back to criminal world. Those who fail to understand it and immediately make some biologist generalization in Gobino’s style fall short of morality that should be universalized in order to be ensured as once Kant said. Thus, it can be noted that universal assumptions of Narveson are more adequate.
Other assumptions concerning the issue of punishment
Moral issues differ in every culture because the systems of societies function differently and have goals and aspirations specific to the community. Within societies, it is always a struggle in resolving moral issues because the means by which the solution has been arrived at is an issue by itself. How was the issue resolved? Was it done through a consensus or a majority vote? Is the majority always right? Societies or cultures more often resort to a majority vote or rule in solving problems or issues because this is the easiest way. Agreeing with the majority means that you would encounter less contradictions or agitations. This does not mean however that going with the majority decision is doing what is right or what is moral. It does not resolve the moral issue at hand because in every argument, each side presents a point which is worthy of consideration and has truth and practicality in it. Going with the majority in settling moral issues is just a simplification of a process or the most convenient way to establish guidelines or rules on punishment so that order may be maintained and status quo achieved in terms of the existing societal or cultural norms.
Punishment is a controversial concept by itself. When it comes to giving punishment, a query on the permissibility or even the morality of the issue or the basis of punishment always comes up. There are different types of punishment on the basis of the force of punishment applied. One of the most important issues to be considered, though, is the possible reasons for giving punishment and the query on the morality related to the justification of the reasons.
One of the main reasons for punishment is in terms of breaking a rule. It is fitting to inquire though on the basis of the rules that are broken. When it comes to rules it can be based on certain factors such as norms and morality. In cases wherein the norms of a particular community can be considered to disagree with the norms of the general public, conflicts on punishment is inevitable. One scenario that can be sited is the case for gangs. When people inside a gang perceive laws, the law within the organization can be considered top priority, thus, the duty that members need to fulfill, regardless of the question of being right and wrong and even morality comes the least in the priorities. For that matter, what they do can be perceived as wrong by the external environment, but inside the organizational system of the gang based on their norms and laws, killing and other crimes can be a called-for duty. As long as their duty to the system is accomplished, no punishment can be achieved. This is the same for the scenario when a person harmed another. When killing is one of the capital crimes that can be given the heaviest punishment, the perspective of the killing can still be considered. For example, people can wage war and declare it on the basis and grounds of religious beliefs. Thus, people not belonging to the said belief can still consider it as a crime in need of punishment but to the believers it is a practice of faith (Lecture notes, p. 11).
When the issues related to punishment then is considered, where do the people stand? This is a great dilemma since the world is a synergy of variation. People live in different beliefs, norms, religions and even races. In one perspective, members of the population may agree but in another view they may be the enemies. This is the reason for the issue on the subjectivity of morality. What is right to a particular group can be wrong to another, thus, the perception of right and wrong is highly subjective. (Moral Matters, p. 2).
Another view that can be considered vital to the issue on punishment is the achievement of justice and protection. It is often questioned if the punishment and the action undertaken are for the good of the majority. This can be considered in the notion for justice and protection. It is based on the protection of the larger part of population (Lecture notes, p. 11).
The issue on the morality of the laws can be considered as another important consideration. This can be attributed to the fact that laws that are passed are only based on the welfare of the majority of the population and not on the basis of morality. Thus, it can be expected that laws may be parallel to morality but total congruency is lacking. What is punishable by law can be unacceptable and wrong in terms of morality (Moral Matters, p. 5).
Based on the different notions that are presented in the discussion of punishment, it can be perceived that making generalizations can be a dangerous notion. For that matter, the rightness or wrongness of the punishment depends on statutory basis. It is a matter of interaction and integration of the different perspectives to be able to arrive at the conclusion and determination of the possible justification of punishment.
In conclusion to the study of punishment, it is important to be able to consider every pertinent factor that is related to the issue. Thus, every factor in argument such as reasons for punishment, are needed to be taken into consideration. And it is important to perceive these factors as vital issues, though the conception of right and wrong can be a challenge to capture. The only way that can decrease the doubt in the morality of the punishment is to be able to perceive and judge the cases and issues on the basis of the different perspectives. But such method can only be applicable to the legal laws. On the other hand, subcultures and subgroups shall continuously have a different perception.
The issue of the permissibility and morality of punishment can never be absolute and universal. Cultural variability inhibits the application of exactly the same punishment guidelines across cultures or societies. The justification of punishment will undergo endless debates and arguments because of the differing viewpoints and value systems of people. Legal or enacted laws are the most practical means to unite or merge these viewpoints. Then again, some will be satisfied with the laws, but some will not. Every single person is different from another so not everyone will be pleased by something. Societies should make a choice and stick to it, otherwise if there is no order then confusion and chaos will creep in.
Narveson, Jan. Moral Issues. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
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Narveson, Jan. Moral Matters. 2nd Ed. Broadview Press, 1999.
Phil 220 Lecture Notes.