A while back I wrote a post about Good and Evil. It was a reactionary post, not very well-written IMHO. I have been meaning for months to elaborate on that post and to share my thoughts on Punishment as it pertains to our system of justice and law. I am a parent who firmly believes that using punishment as a tool for disciplining children is detrimental to their well-being, and the following is a natural extension of the thought processes that led me to this philosophy. When one recognizes that there are far better, more effective and ultimately more “just” ways of raising children than using punishment, the next logical step is applying it to society at large.
We live in a culture where the word “justice” is equated with “punishment”. Following the arrest of someone believed to commit a heinous crime, you will hear phrases such as “he must be brought to justice” or “the victims just want justice”. Basically, this means they want to see the perpetrator punished.
On a radio discussion the other day I heard several people say that the Victims wishes and feelings towards the handling of a prosecution, or the release of a criminal on parole, should be considered of utmost import. I completely disagree. In fact, I think victims and their families are the least capable of determining what constitutes a fair and balanced assessment of the situation. They are the most emotional, the least rational, and – it seems – the most demanding for “justice”.
And so we talk about punishment as though it were part of what is Just, but I honestly believe punishment is simply Vengeance written into a code of Law. And I can’t decide yet whether the desire for vengeance is a part of human nature, or the result of a culture where punishment is intrinsic in almost everything we do.
But what is the alternative? That is what most people ask when faced with the suggestion that punishment could be removed from our justice system entirely. What seems to limit our ability to discuss this as a society is the underlying assumption that, without the Threat of Punishment, most people will behave in the worst way possible. There are so many things wrong with this assumption.
First, I think most people behave “rightly” because it feels right. Because as social creatures we have instinctual drives towards maintaining the cohesiveness of the social unit. We have a conscience, which I believe represents the biological, hard-wired instincts that guide us in our behaviour towards the goal of social harmony. In other words, it is in our animal nature to ensure social harmony.
Second, I think it assumes that people are inherently “bad” and will only make choices for the good of society as a whole if they are forced into it by the threat of punishment. The parallels between this and our view of children can’t be overemphasized. On the contrary, I think most people are inherently “good”, but become conditioned to view their actions in terms of “how does this benefit ME” by the very system of reward and punishment in which they are raised.
Finally, the assumptions above assume that the alternative to punishment is complacency. As a non-punishment parent I am constantly having to emphasize to others that punishment does not equal discipline. When I say “I don’t punish my children”, people imagine that I simply do nothing. They are generally incapable of imagining what other courses of action may be used to guide a child, because the notion of behaviouralism (controlling behaviours by reinforcing those desired and punishing those that aren’t) is so entrenched in our society. Parents who choose to dispense with punishment as a discipline tool must be actively educated (and self-motivated to do so) in the alternatives to punishment. It seems it does not come naturally to all but the very few of us.
“Imagine a world with no shame and blame — where it’s impossible to be “bad.” Imagine a world where people can stumble, make mistakes, and sometimes even hurt each other, but they are never deemed “wrong.” Errors are noticed, and course-corrections are made, but blame and shame never enter the picture.”
This is what I was trying to say in my previous post on the subject. This, to me, is true Justice.
I will elaborate on how such a system of justice would look, using real life examples of people who have followed such a course, in a subsequent post on this subject.