back to Mainly for Non-Believers
Some sensitive and caring people think the very notion of "punishment" is spiteful and vengeful and they’d like to be rid of the concept altogether. More than the concept, they’d like society to be rid of the practice. There should be no punishment for anyone.
Hmmm. But what are we to do with people who are viciously disruptive and who inflict pain and loss on the innocent? What of those we have solid reasons to believe will continue to inflict injury on the defenseless? These caring people insist we should deal with such people but that it shouldn’t be by punishing them. We should cure them by changing them and this would be a long-term deterrent but in the meantime, if we must, we will isolate them from society and that will deter them in the short-term. But while we have them isolated from society as a short term deterrent we should work with them in various ways to understand them and condition them so as to change them and thus rehabilitate them.
It doesn’t matter much to these fine people how we phrase the notion of punishment—as soon as we speak of someone "deserving" some administered unpleasantness (whatever form it takes) we’re on the wrong track. Whatever it takes, however we express it or reflect on it the notion of punishment is to be got rid of. The word itself derives, finally, from penalty and so rightly understood someone has offended (in some form) and in response to that offense some authorized personnel have intentionally inflicted some unpleasantness on the offender as retribution.
The two concepts that matter to these people in dealing with offenders are that society be protected and that the offender be personally helped to leave his/her socially unacceptable behavior behind. These people don’t say the behavior is good or that it doesn’t matter, and it’s untrue to say they are without sympathy toward the victims; they simply claim that inflicting pain or loss on an offender is spite and vengefulness baptized by society and made to look good.
But thoughtful people, just as caring as these, have continued to tell us for many years that it is immoral to dispense with the notion of "retribution" and forcibly deprive people of their liberty against their will. If they have done nothing to "deserve" our putting them in a place that will subject them to our "healing" they should not be there. If we say to some innocent bystander, "We are going to put you in a (sort of) hospital to help free you from your socially unacceptable behavior" we won’t be surprised if he/she objects. If we use barely enough (but enough) restraint to take him to that place—this perfectly innocent bystander—it won’t matter to him/her that it will have nice accommodation, food, personnel and surroundings. When they strenuously insist that they have done nothing wrong and should not be shanghaied into such a place they will make sense to every thinking person in the world except those that have abducted them.
Enforced remedial treatment can only be remedial if first it is warranted! It cannot possibly be remedial if it isn’t warranted or "earned". We can only morally attempt to cure "the sick" if we know him to be sick. We can only forcibly attempt to rehabilitate a known offender. To forcibly "treat" a non-offender is not only illegal and immoral it’s also absurd. And we forcibly treat the offender precisely because he/she has offended. Whatever our motives (and they may be the purest under heaven) the forcible treatment in response to wrongdoing (whether wrongdoing is defined in legal, social or moral terms) has the nature of penalty. "You did this and in light of that and as a response to that we are compelled to do what we are about to do."
And if we’re so sensitive that we must absolutely jettison all idea of penalty then we are enforcing society’s will on an unwilling person. A person who, according to our own claim, does not deserve what is happening to him. "No one in the world can deserve what we’re about to do to you but we’re going to do it without your consent." A "treatment" can’t be remedial unless the offender believes it is "deserved" otherwise he/she will see it as unjust. And if the offender smarts under the injustice of it all then it’s no remedy.
And it really doesn’t help if we say that the enforced "cure" is not punishment or penalty. It robs the individual of all that makes life pleasant to him/her. If he asks, "Are you depriving me of freedom and family because I did this or that?" the answer would have to be yes. So while we wish to avoid the word "punishment" we are doing to that man or woman what philosopher Anthony Flew has judiciously defined as punishment. See Penal Substitution.
So we subject this person against his/her will to what is unpleasant to them because they have offended all the while insisting that they don’t deserve what we’re doing; all the while we tell them, "If we were to punish you we would be barbarians."
And if the offender were to ask, "Are you doing this as a deterrent to others?" and we were to say yes, that would only make matters worse. This is being enforced on him/her against their wills even though it isn’t merited (for no one in the world merits "punishment"). And now they’re told it’s to keep others from doing the same kinds of things. Now, though "deserving" nothing they are used as a means to an end. Hmmm.