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The Function Of Punishment Essay

2114 words - 8 pages

The Function of Punishment

"Justice must not only be done but seen to be done". Most would agree
with this statement - the wicked must surely be punished (or should
they? - do two wrongs make a right?) but why is it so important that
the punishment must be seen to be done? To the utilitarian the answer
is simple - punishment must be witnessed in order to deter others from
committing the same act. Thus, to a utilitarian the perception of
punishment is seen as the main, or even the sole, justification for
punishment. Of course, if the wrongdoer is sent to prison for any
length of time he is incapacitated, and thus excluded from doing
further harm. Further, while being punished there may be at least the
hope that the wrongdoer repents and reforms. Both these consequences
are compatible with utilitarian principles as they both serve to
reduce the harm caused by anti-social behaviour. Seen in this way
punishment can be said to have a tripartite function - to deter, to
reform, and to incapacitate. The extent to which any of these
functions are successful is a matter of debate, as is the extent to
which any one of these functions should take priority. Although the
length of this essay precludes any real discussion on this subject, it
would perhaps be as well to mention that broadly speaking those that
stress the importance of reform tend to be of the liberal disposition,
whereas conservatives tend to put more emphasis on the deterrent
aspect of punishment. Both perspectives however are essentially
utilitarian as they both see the function of punishment as being to
minimise the overall quantity of suffering . Also it would perhaps be
true to say that liberals generally tend to view the function of
punishment as maintaining morality in society, whereas conservatives
are perhaps more likely to argue of the importance of maintaining
order in society.

Taking that, by definition, punishment involves inflicting some kind
of pain on the offender, the ideas of reform and incapacitation are
largely seen as secondary to the main purpose of punishment - to
deter. The most well known proponents of utilitarianism have almost
always justified punishment in terms of its deterrent effect. Bentham,
for example, argued that apparent justice was everything, and real
justice was essentially irrelevant. And John Stuart Mill, in defending
the death penalty, stated that "to deter by suffering by inflicting
suffering is not only possible, but the very purpose of penal Justice.
(Mill 1868). This leads to one of the main criticisms of the
utilitarian argument, namely the denial that there is any moral
justification for punishment other than preventing further suffering.
This argument seems counter intuitive - surely the wrongdoer must get
his just deserts? What would justice mean if some wrongdoers were to

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