Atheism and Justifications for State Punishment

NOTE: I just want to sketch out some potentially abhorrent ideas I had. I am quite aware of the gaping logical holes that follow. Consider this fodder for discussion rather than an attempt to create a cohesive argument. There are three basic justifications or rationalizations for state punishment: incapacitation, rehabilitation, and deterrence. They are all generally considered to be acceptable to some degree depending on your philosophical disposition. There is a fourth justification that underlies the other three and is the most convincing for the atheist. First, there is incapaciation, the simplest and most straightforward. The idea is that there is a subset of criminals who need to be segregated from society to protect society. The easiest and most visceral example is the serial pedophile. This type of pedophile will continue to molest children if allowed to roam freely. He is imprisoned to make it impossible for him to continue to molest. Prison functions solely to stop him, and only him, from harming others. Second, there is rehabilitation, the most popular and least realistic justification. Originating with the Quakers in the 1800s, this penal theory holds that prison should be used to educate and help criminals learn to be moral citizens. While locked away, prisoners are given the tools to become better people. Once they learn the error of their ways, they can be released back into society as productive and law-abiding citizens. Third, there is deterrence, the most popular scholarly justification for state incarceration. This simply means that the state imprisons people in order to send a warning to others: if you commit crimes, you will be punished. This warning then reduces crimes because it makes criminal acts less attractive because they are more risky. There are two types of deterrence: specific and general. Specific deterrence is concerned with deterring the individual criminal from committing more crimes. Once they know what it is like to have their liberty and freedom taken away, they are less likely disobey the law because they know the severity of the consequences. General deterrence is concerned with everyone. People in general will be less likely to commit a crime because they know that there is potentially a negative consequence to their actions. Deterrence is a favorite of utilitarians, like Benthem, who sometimes create faniciful moral calculuses to determine the requisite level of punishment needed to maximize the deterrence effect. None of these justifications are discrete. Incarcerating someone to deter others necessarily also incapacitates him. Rehabiliting someone in prison does not remove the stigma from having to be in prison, so deterrence is still present. For the religious, none of these justifications makes a difference in the final analysis. There is a fantastical being in the sky who records all your thoughts and deed and remembers them without forgetting. When you die, you must face this infinite bureaucrat who performs a celestial accounting of your life. If you have done good, you are rewarded. If you have done bad, you are punished. What does it matter what the state thinks is the best justification for punishment when there is someone far more vast and important who performs the final arbitration? The believers know that there will be personal justice for them at some point, even if justice in the world is meted out by and for the benefit of the state. Divine retribution awaits everyone. For the athiest, there is no solace in a just afterlife because such a utopia is a foolish delusion. Punishment must come in the here and now or it will never come at all. The intutive sense of justice that most people have can be explained through genetics and evolution, although I am not going to make that case here today. The argument rests on the assumption that for the reader, concepts such as "justice" and "fairness" have meaning without the foundation of natural law, derived from spiritual or scriptural sources. The religious person has the personal satisfaction that evildoers will receive their just deserts. The athiest can only have that personal satisfaction if people are punished solely for the sake of punishment. Deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation might all be byproducts of the punishment, but the punishment is just regardless of whether any of these other effects occur. Revenge as justification for punishment is considered barbaric by many, but it is the most basic justification, the one that resides deepest in our hearts. Modern society has purged this instinct, replacing it with "rational" philosophies. Who hasn't considered the atrocities they would commit if someone tortured and raped their mother? This is so universal, it must be genetic, perhaps a evolutionary response to and a way of supporting the bond of reciprical altruism that binds us together and which allowed civilization to be born. The danger is that individuals would carry out the revenge-punishment themselves, turning to vigilantism in lieu of the courts. This would remove the procedural and substantive safeguards built into the justice system. To avoid this problem, the state should carry out the punishment on behalf of those affected by the crime, channeling the revenge in order to insure its fairness, rather than treating all crimes as ultimately offenses against the state. This would provide the satisfaction of revenge for the athiest, who cannot rely on a otherwordly satisfaction to come.

  1. One argument you hear from the put-the-ten-commandments-in-the-courthouse crowd is that without the Bible, or religion, or the Christian God, there is no basis for morals and no reason for people to treat each other well. I would think that an atheist would have even more of a reason to act morally, because this life is all they have. Atheists need laws becuase there is no divine judge waiting who will make everything right in the end. Humans are social animals, so even atheists can’t help but judge themselves in part by how others judge them–so it makes a lot of sense to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    September 21st, 2006 at 8:03 am
  2. We now have a well defined justice system in our society, but back in the old days, and Im talking way old like before we invented bread the first laws for society were made by religion. People were out of control there were no rules and consequences and they just did what thy wanted. I want to marry a goat, sure. Hey let me eat my brothers brain, okay. Im going to impregnante my mother then sacrifice the child to this god I invented, why not! Religion was a way of getting these maniacs in order and be able to actually contruct a functioning society. Religion ahs always been a tool to keep society stable. Kings relied on priests to give them the divine authority to pass laws and such that people would actually listen too. True many people are more civilized today and have been able to move beyond religion as a means to control themsleves. But there are still plenty of lunatics out there that religious punishment is the only reason they arn’t completely out of their minds going crazy.

    D Wallz
    September 21st, 2006 at 12:59 pm

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