Strong opinions, weakly held

The purposes of punishment

On the Advanced NFL Stats blog, Brian Burke has written an interesting post about the philosophy of punishment. First, he lists the reasons why you punish people:

… punishment has at least five possible purposes: incapacitation, restitution, rehabilitation, deterrent, and prevention of retribution.

He then goes on to elaborate on each of those. I particularly liked his explanation of the last purpose:

Another purpose of punishment, one that I think we’ve lost touch with in modern society, is to prevent a cycle of vigilante retribution. The ancient verse eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is widely understood as recommending retaliation. In tribal societies absent of a central authority, it was common for cycles of retribution to spiral out of control. If one party knocks out another’s tooth, pretty soon the victim’s cousins would be exacting revenge on the offender’s family. I understand the verse to mean hey dummy, don’t take an eye in exchange for a tooth. Knock out the other guy’s tooth and let that be the end of it. Otherwise we’ve got the Hatsfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, or Bosnians and Serbs.

Given the pervasiveness of vigilanteism as a theme in fiction, I don’t think we’ve lost touch with this aspect of punishment to the degree that he supposes.

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