I have been thinking lately about the concept of punishment. It seems quite natural to us that when someone does something wrong, he or she should be punished. When someone commits murder, we may argue about the nature of the punishment deserved, but the fact that they deserve to be punished is not often questioned. I wonder, though: what is the utility of punishment? In what ways does punishing a crime make things better, and do the improvements warrant the cost?
When we speak about someone going to jail or serving some other sentence for a crime committed, we usually do so in terms of fairness - did they get what they deserved? Are we really the arbiters of fairness? Is that what we are doing: maintaining some sort of balance? To what end? When we put someone to death by lethal injection, are we correcting some kind of imbalance in the universe? Avenging a victim or a victim's loved ones? When we throw someone in jail for possessing marijuana, are we trying to keep the person off the streets? Are we teaching them a lesson?
To my mind, none of the usual reasons given for punishment hold a lot of water. I believe that the most important reason for punishment is one that doesn't sit well with the American ideal of individualism. It is that by punishing one person for a crime, you disincentivize the crime for others. This is essentially the only rational use of punishment for cases in which the perpetrator poses no further threat to society, and it is the most important reason in most other cases. By creating a punishment for a crime and showing that you will, in fact, enforce it, we attempt to make the commission of that crime less attractive to others who are inclined to commit it.
I believe there is too much emphasis, at least in this country, on punishment as a means of retribution. We often hear about whether a person is getting what he or she deserves. I think that completely misses the point of punishment. We are not trying to restore a cosmic balance. We are trying to create a society that is shaped in the way its members want. The only way to do so is to create incentives and disincentives where they do not otherwise naturally exist. It is not and should never be about revenge.
What has primarily steered my mind toward these issues is the Trayvon Martin case. The anger in this case is understandable, and based on the knowledge I have of it, it seems to me that it was a real travesty and the shooting was not justified. However, calls for the lynching of his killer, George Zimmerman - and yes, I have indeed read those online, written in some cases by people who likely have not-so-distant ancestors who were victims of lynch mobs - are disturbing to me. The justice system in the United States is far from perfect, but it certainly beats lynch mob justice. That does nothing to fix the problem. Nothing will bring back Trayvon Martin. His killing is a wrong that cannot be righted. However, by using his case as a way to shed light on the problems with the system and to bring about changes for the better, we can make sure it wasn't for nothing.