Moral Punishment

by Anna KrasnoslobodtsevaPhoto of Anna Krasnoslobodtseva

Anna is a biochemistry major from Milton, MA. She decided to write about the prison system and punishment because of conversations about morality during her Composition II class, and because she believes “the prison system in the United States is often discriminatory and does not work toward the rehabilitation of people like it should.” She felt that writing this was “more free than a traditional structured high school essay” and that it “involved a lot of learning, by means of stepping outside of what I am comfortable with writing and exploring new research methods, going to the library, and taking on a voice.” Anna speaks three languages and loves to spend time outside, walking, hiking, and exploring. She is inspired by nature and has a goal to visit all the National Parks and hike the Appalachian Trail.

I’m sure we have all heard the famous saying or notion, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We all inherently understand and want for people to get what they deserve; it is the basis of our justice system. Well, Gandhi is credited with adding a key idea to the phrase: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” If we return someone’s pain directly back to them, everyone suffers. And yet, if someone punches us our only natural instinct is to punch them back, or even punch them back harder, knock out a few eyes or teeth. That want for vengeance is a part of every human, especially those with siblings. In his essay “The Moral Instinct” Steven Pinker cites Bertrand Russell who said, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists— that is why they invented hell” (2). We want revenge; we want evil people to rot in hell because it makes us feel better and morally superior. Revenge is a natural human emotion, but just because it is natural does that make it correct? If someone does something morally wrong, then others cannot do something morally wrong to punish them. How do we punish someone in a moral way and do they deserve to be punished in a moral way?

Before examining how to punish someone, we must analyze why humans punish in the first place. As Russell puts it, punishment is just a delight to moralists, just a fun activity, like going to an amusement park. However, I think the idea is a little more complicated than just wanting a fun excuse to feel morally superior. Punishment can be a source of vengeance and wanting justice, but is there more to the story than just this idea? If you ask a parent why they put their child in time-out, they will likely tell you it is because they did something wrong and need to learn their lesson. The same logic applies to our justification for punishing adults and criminals. In her book The Case Against Punishment, Deirdre Golash questions our foundations of punishment, and if it is even necessary. Golash explains, “The idea that punishment does more good than harm corresponds to the purpose of preventing crime. And the idea that punishment benefits the offender corresponds to the purpose of making the offender a better person” (5). We like to justify that the reason someone gets punished is so that crime can be prevented. Or, to make the offender a better person by helping them “learn their lesson.” It makes sense, if you ask anyone to justify why they are punished or punishing someone they will lively explain using the same words. But is this justification the true reason for why we punish or is it merely a justification?

Think again about the punching example, if your fists are not too tired. Our innate response to being punched is to punch back. We would even do it without thinking or justifying it. It is a purely emotional, even animalistic response. Maybe in our response to wrongdoing, punishment is more emotional, rather than a calculated response like we want to believe. Rob Canton comes to the same conclusions. In his article, “Crime, Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Righteous Minds and Their Attitudes Towards Punishment” Canton rationalizes that, “Since there are no adequate grounds for punishment, he looks for origins instead and finds them in innate ‘retributive emotions’ that favour reciprocity and tit-for-tat, and in the social and cultural adaptations that modulate and refine these inherited and ‘hard-wired’ dispositions” (57). Retributive emotions. We all have them. We punch our sister, and when she starts to cry we tell our parents that she punched us first. First we act, then we justify. Another important issue arises when Canton says, “there are no adequate grounds for punishment.” But what about murder, rape, and kidnapping? Do none of these crimes require punishment? If nothing requires punishment, then why do we require prisons?

You might be thinking, well of course we need prisons, where do we put those who are dangerous to our society? Prisons are necessary and important for punishing those who did harm, keeping immoral people out of society, and teaching them morality. We may believe that prisons are meant to teach morality to those who are incarcerated, to teach them their lesson and make them into better people. But this is all unfortunately a dream. James Logan questions the need and effectiveness of the United States prison system in his book Good Punishment. Logan notes, “Each year some 644,000 persons are incarcerated for various offenses while some 625,000 are released onto the streets. It is widely estimated that about 50 to 75 percent of released inmates will be returned to prison within a few years” (62). Recidivism is a big issue with the prison system as those who commit crimes may commit new crimes and are placed back into prison. If the prison system was working properly and teaching people their lessons on how to be more moral, then there would be no problem of recidivism. But, as shown by the statistics, more than half of the people going to prison do not learn their lesson and gain a new sense of morality as we would like to assume. This is only further proof of the retributive emotions that Canton explains. Prison does not work to better people but rather to make those who put them there feel better.

Recidivism might not seem like a large issue. If someone did not learn their lesson the first time, then they can try again. After all, they are getting a second chance to be a better person, right? Wrong. Logan explains, “A serious social consequence of all of this is that a significant fraction of offenders will find the obstacles to obtaining basic shelter, education, and employment (all of which enhance the establishment of stable family, communal, and societal relationships) insurmountable” (95). Prisons do not help to rehabilitate people in the slightest. It seems that they do quite the opposite, leaving those previously incarcerated homeless, illiterate, and even less productive members of society than when they were locked up. Is it moral to force people to pay such a high price for a crime that they committed? If someone made a bad decision, does that mean they deserve to be confined to a life of suffering even outside of prison?

If the reason for prison is not to morally correct someone, then the true reason for prison is the want for justice. We can look at the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), which was conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo in a mock jail in the Stanford University basement. The experiment involved creating a simulated prison with college students acting as prisoners and guards. The guards quickly turned violent, abusing and torturing the inmates. The results of the experiment can reveal much about human psychology regarding prison and the treatment of inmates. In her essay, “The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Torture Hermeneutics: Difference and Morality in the US University, 1968 to 9/11,” Danielle Bouchard reasons, “By Zimbardo’s own reckoning, the SPE demonstrated that evil is not a phenomenon of individual pathology, but rather of extreme social situations that could cause anyone (or those Zimbardo refers to as “good people”) to engage in acts they would otherwise find abhorrent” (407). The college boys who were chosen to be prison guards eventually torture the prisoners because of their positions of authority. So much so that the experiment needed to be ended prematurely. It shows that high positions of authority and feelings of superior morality can lead even ”good people” to do unthinkable and immoral things. The guards’ quick turn to torture demonstrates that prison is not entirely about correcting and making people better, but also about revenge. As Golash observes, “Justice is not limited by personal responsibility or proportionality to the original offense; it is enough that the person on whom vengeance is taken is on the side of the enemy” (6). We want to punish those who have taken the side of the enemy, not just those who have done something morally wrong per se. Many times prisoners are viewed as the enemy because they acted in a way that our own morality would not allow us personally to do. They are seen as the “other,” and we ourselves feel morally superior to them.

The question is: are we truly morally superior to the prisoners? Bouchard examines this question by stating “[a]ny deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us under the right or wrong situational circumstances” (410). It is a terrifying thought that anyone, or even you yourself, could commit a terrible crime. It begs the question of the existence of free will, but we will not venture into that dark corridor. Instead, I think it is important to understand that although we may not be currently in a prison, we are not morally superior to those who are. It may be delightful, as Russell asserts, for moralists to inflict pain with their good conscience, but our consciousness is no better than those that we may view as immoral. You or I may not be any better or superior than someone currently locked up in prison; we may have just stumbled into this place through the alignment of correct circumstances. That is to say that in punishing others, we should have no moral superiority or want for revenge guiding us in our actions, but rather a want for the person incarcerated to become a better or more moral person than the one they came to prison as. As hard as it may seem, we must abandon our retributive emotions because the second we get a sense of moral superiority is the second that we become the prison guards in the SPE torturing those below us because chance decided that we would be above and they would be below.

What and how must we do to fix the prison system so that it rehabilitates those in it instead of simply punishing them? Prisons in the United States, as they are today, are not a good solution; they simply do not work to rehabilitate and teach people morality as we all hope for. There must be a better system that actually works to rehabilitate prisoners. Halden Prison in Norway is designed to be a more humane prison. A video created by Christophe Haubursin highlights the ways in which Halden Prison is designed. The design is chosen to be more humane for the prisoners, ultimately for it to feel less like a prison. Designers choose more natural materials that are less rugged, like glass. Halden has a campus design with many windows that take advantage of the natural lighting. It’s designed so that there is less conflict between the prisoners and more interactions with the guards. The video explains, “Being imprisoned is the punishment, the architecture does not have to be” (Haubursin). Just because someone is imprisoned because of a crime, they already do not have a normal human life, trapped in an establishment. The least they can get is a little dignity to feel like they are in a nice place and not a concrete barricade. Not only does the prison look and feel less prison-like, but it also works. Norway’s recidivism rate dropped to 20% from the 60-70% high seen in the 1990s (Dorjsuren). Bolorzul Dorjsuren highlights the successes of Halden and similar prisons in Norway in his article, “Norway’s Prison System Benefits Its Economy.” Dorjsuren remarks, “The main reason for these statistics is due to a focus on “restorative justice,” an approach that identifies prisons in the same category as rehabilitation facilities” (Dorjsuren). Where prisons are a place of rehabilitation instead of a place of punishment or the assertion of dominance over prisoners rather than the permanent or long term confinement, which results in the inability of the prisoner to reenter society as seen in the United States. If the prison system in the United States is changed, to be more like the one in Norway, prisoners could emerge as better and more moral people. Which is what I, for one, want for those who committed a crime – everyone deserves education, and a second chance at life.

Even if some people can and will be rehabilitated in Halden Prison, some people might not “deserve” this treatment. The problem still stands: what do we do for the serial killers, the murderers, the child rapists, and those who kill and torture. Do they deserve the same treatment back? Currently, 27 states say yes, poke them with a needle or electrocute them ( Or as the prisoner Richard Moore in South Carolina has recently chosen, a firing squad (Bogel-Burroughs). Moore killed a store clerk by shooting him in the heart, and now Moore will receive the same treatment at the hands of state correctional officers. This brings us to the original question of “an eye for an eye?” Does Moore, or any other prisoner on death row, deserve to die because they killed someone? And is it moral to kill someone under any circumstances? Do the correctional officers deserve to go on death row because they also killed someone, or is it all fine because Moore killed someone first? Most people would say yes. A report from the Pew Research Center on the matter found that, “Among the public overall, 64% say the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, while 33% say it is not justified. An overwhelming share of death penalty supporters (90%) say it is morally justified under such circumstances, compared with 25% of death penalty opponents”(Pew Research Center). Over half of the people polled say that it is not only okay, but also morally justifiable to kill someone if they killed someone else. Most people, myself included, would say that killing is immoral. But in the case of someone who has done something immoral, most people also say that killing the criminal is not only okay, but morally justified.

Talk about an eye for an eye. If you kill someone, people then consider that it is okay to kill you. So in what ways do our morals influence our decisions of lethal importance such as capital punishment? Capital punishment is supposed to be about fairness. In his article, Canton explains this using psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work explaining human foundations of morality. One of Haidt’s six pillars of morality is fairness/cheating, which explains our approval of capital punishment. Canton observes that, “‘The language of balance, equilibrium, and geometry pervade analyses and descriptions of retribution.’ While what counts as proportionate punishment varies across cultures ‘what is clear is that the principle of retribution is tied to a principle of proportionality” (63). As humans we want the punishment to be fair, we want the offender to receive the same treatment as they gave. We have a lot of words for this like: the golden rule, a taste of their own medicine, or “an eye for an eye.” It is an inherent understanding of humans and one of the pillars of our moral foundations. According to Dorjsuren in Norway, however, the current longest prison sentence for a case of murder is only 15 years. In Norway they feel that 15 years of life is enough punishment; it is fair enough for murder. So, maybe the capital punishment system is incorrect in the United States. Maybe our system needs to be abolished, and people should not need to pay for a crime with their life. Indeed capital punishment might not be correct but it is important to understand that it is only human – justifiably moral even. Capital punishment, a seemingly immoral practice, can be justified with the moral foundations. And in our eyes, even if killing is seen as immoral, our moral pillar of fairness often overrides this for the sake of equity.

Moral punishment: the statement almost seems contradictory. It seems almost impossible to punish someone in a way that is seen as moral. Prisons ultimately cause more harm to the inmates and leave them unable to rejoin society, and recidivism shows that punishment does not help at all to improve a person’s morality. In Norway, by contrast, prisons are designed to rehabilitate the inmates rather than punish them, which works to reduce the rates of recidivism. However, prisons in the United States are not likely to change anytime soon because of our retributive emotions and the pillars of morality. It is a human idea to want fairness even if it means something morally wrong is being done. We can create a laundry list of reasons why it is okay to kill someone; we can morally justify almost anything. But ultimately, our reason for wanting to punish is our feeling or retributive emotions, our want for revenge. It’s time to invest in some protective goggles because we will still want an eye for an eye, even if it means the whole world will need to be blind.

Works Cited
Bogel-Burroughs, Nicholas. “South Carolina Prisoner Chooses to Be Executed by Firing Squad.”
The New York Times. 15 Apr. 2022.

Bouchard, Danielle. “The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Torture Hermeneutics: Difference and Morality in the US University, 1968 to 9/11. Journal of American Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 401–27.

Canton, Rob. “Crime, Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Righteous Minds and Their Attitudes Towards Punishment.” Punishment & Society, vol. 17, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2015, pp. 54–72.

Death Penalty Information Center. State by State. (2021).

Dorjsuren, Bolorzul. “Norway’s Prison System Benefits Its Economy.” The Borgen Project. Jan. 2021.

Haubursin, Christophe. “How Norway Designed a More Humane Prison.” YouTube, Vox, 12 April 2019.

Golash, Deirdre. The Case Against Punishment : Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law. New York University Press, 2005.

“Learning English – Moving Words Mahatma Gandhi.” BBC News, BBC.

Logan, James Samuel. Good Punishment? : Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008.

Most Americans Favor the Death Penalty Despite Concerns about Its Administration.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 13 July 2021.

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times, 2003.