Punishment and Rehabilitation

Suppose scientists come up with a drug that can cure criminal deviancy. A serial killer is captured and found guilty of a couple murders. Would you have a problem if all he got was a needle injection which without a doubt makes his brain change in such a way that he doesn’t want to do that kind of stuff anymore? He doesn’t have the same vices as he used to. He’s a different person. No longer a criminal, in the sense that he is no longer disposed to criminal activities. Would it be unethical to punish this man after he takes the drug? Would punishment serve any constructive purpose aside from satisfying our want to see him suffer?

Justice is bound to come up as a mask for this type of sadism towards the other, but what’s the point/value of justice in this situation? What would justice do?

justice isn’t about rehabilitation

justice is an eye for an eye


I wouldn’t have a problem with the injection being the only punishment.

As for whether it would be ethical to punish him further, that depends. Would punishing him discourage future individuals from becoming serial killers? Or would it help those who were hurt by his actions in some manner? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes” then the punishment could be ethical. But the first question has a conflict with the last question. For example, the punishment for the second could be the payment of some fine. But weregild only discourages murder for those who can’t afford it.

what’s an eye for an eye for?

Interesting question. Hadn’t thought of that. But my instincts tell me that deterrence alone is not sufficient ground for punishment. If it was, I can see lawmakers feel justified to severely punish some kid who stole some chewing gum, because shoplifting is a big problem for a lot of business. I used to work at Circuit City a while ago, and a lot of product was lost that way.

Again, good point, but I don’t see bringing comfort to the victim (in the form of satisfying their want to see the guy suffer in this case) as something the law has to take on as a responsibility. You think it is? But even if it was the state’s responsibility, do you think this alone, or even this with the deterrence condition is enough to punish someone who’s taken that drug and is no longer a danger to society? Personally I am hesitant to say yes.

I’m not so sure about that. What makes punishment justified in my eyes is the taking of the person with his criminal vices off the street, i.e., eliminating danger for innocent people. Once this is no longer a worry, then I don’t see enough reason to punish that person.

Here I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Then it’s existential execution. The murderer has been killed, it’s just his body’s still walking around, with some new possessing spirit wound into its veins.

Still a lethal injection in the sense that matters.

May as well ask if a murderer, executed, his organs harvested and transplanted into others, should continue to be punished by imprisioning the poor dopes who recieved his kidneys etc.

Harbouring (part of) a known felon perhaps…? :laughing:

Well, I mean this is sort of a classic question with respect to the function of deterrence with respect to law. From my perspective, laws explicitly recognize the minimum bounds of the moral sphere in any given society. And, of course, reinforce the existing power structures. But let’s focus on the more idealistic first point for a moment. I know in Elizabethan England there was a big debate about deterrence and law. One camp thought that those few criminals who are caught should be so brutally punished so as to discourage future crimes. The other camp thought that a broader police state (though that term was not used) was ideal and that nearly every criminal would be caught and the punishment for the crimes would be light.

You can see pretty quickly the sort of freedom vs. security debates that those camps would have.

The former camp has more influence over modern jurisprudence with respect to deterrence than the latter. Things like the Three Strikes Laws in many American States do severely punish kids for stealing gum, stupid as that may seem.

And if those laws worked, I wouldn’t have a problem with them. You’ll note that the foundation for these laws is lacking in a philosophical sense, these things need to be empirically determined. Many harsh punishments don’t act as deterrents so they are unjustified. Others do, so they are justified.

The ability to execute law within its boarders is pretty minimum requirement for a successful state; furthermore modern states have a duty to enforce their laws (rule of law and all that). States have a monopoly on the justified use of violence. Punishment is a violent act (in that it involves restricting a person’s freedom/rights). So, it follows that the state should have a monopoly on punishing wrongdoers. Naturally, this view has a lot of holes if taken as an absolute or naively approached. Parents, for example, have the moral authority to commit constructive violence on their children, indeed it is their duty to do so. But we can think of children as being non-citizens or partial citizens and then it isn’t really an issue. The alternative to this patchy model is that of vigilante justice, of the offended seeking retribution on their own terms. That is pretty clearly in violation of the rule of law.

Deterrence serves to better eliminate that danger. If I arrest a murderer and put him away forever I may have saved the lives of those who would have been his future victims. That is good. If I can prevent a man from becoming a murderer, I have saved the lives of all those who would have been his victims.

Someone on ILP posted a story a while ago. He was hanging out in the tube with a Russian friend of his. There were huge signs on the wall: “No smoking, 200 pound fine”. The Russian friend thought this was the dumbest thing ever because people know what the punishment is so they can make a rational decision about it. A wealthy man could then break the law with abandon because he knows what the fine is and that he can afford it. In Russia, he said that punishments were unknown and largely determined on the spot. That keeps people from committing crimes because they don’t know what the consequences will be so the only rational choice is not to commit crimes at all.


Justice spelled REVENGE!

When the vain notion of ‘freewill’ is gone, there can be no ‘revenge’ or ‘blame’ or ‘punishment’ or ‘guilt’.
The, then, appropriate response would be compassionate and healing. If they still can’t play nice, isolation and perhaps restraint. But all done compassionately, as if it were one’s own mother or dad or brother or son…
The horror is concurrent with the vain notion (‘belief’) in free-will.
Where would the world be without ‘guilt’ or ‘punishment’ or ‘blame’?

From Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Devil’s Dictionary’;

JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition
the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes
and personal service.

RETALIATION (closest thing to ‘revenge’ that was listed -n), n. The natural rock upon which is reared the Temple of

such a drug would be a gross contradiction to the entire concept of justice itself.

and yes, he would still be a criminal, because “being a criminal” does not change until one has been discharged from the social obligation to pay a debt for ones crimes. if i rob a bank but then a week later get into a car accident and go on life support and they have to cut off my arms and legs to save me, am i still a criminal even though i will never rob another bank again? of course i am.

removing someones free will by FORCING them to act “morally” does not make them moral. and there cannot even be a concept of justice itself without a prior stipulation to some level of freedom over ones own actions.

Justice is about revenge you mean. Least that’s the modern misuse of the concept.

You do realise that law was meant to prevent people from taking revenge (vigilantism), especially in Jewish society where a blood feud could often arise from slights against peoples families. Thus the concept let the punishment be mete for the crime and no more, executions were rare and usually a settlement was accepted between parties. Move on nearly 6000 years, and its state sponsored revenge, how far we have come. :wink:

The OP should read A Clockwork Orange perhaps. Where the anti hero is made to undergo a treatment that cures his recidivism. Discusses the ideas surrounding free will and forced indoctrination by drugs and suggestive programming.


You really think deterrence alone is enough to justify punishment even if it did work? What about the people being punished? Being punished for the sake of changing other people’s minds doesn’t seem fair to those punished. It’s like the classic utilitarian thought experiments where your intuitions are tested. Each thought experiment differs just a little bit from the last, but this difference is significant to the lever pusher. The first one says that if you pull a lever you will divert the train from running it’s course and killing five people to it killing 1 or 2 (or generally any number less than 5). Most are okay with pulling the lever. Then the other thought experiment stipulates that you can push another lever that rams a trolley with two people on it against this one, and you will kill the two people onboard instead of the 5. Then there’s some more until you get to the fat man example, where you can throw the innocent fat man in front of the train in order to get it off track. This is the one that’s usually the deal breaker, and the explanation given why this is a deal breaker is Kant’s old ‘don’t treat people as means’ thing, but here taken as a descriptive human condition instead of a normative one. I see the rehabilitated criminal like the fat man in your argument, in that he is sacrificed for the wellbeing of others. Doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t think it’s fair to the fatty, although…unfairness to the fatty might not be enough reason not to push him in front of the train.

I understand that, and I’m not arguing against state’s rights. I’m more wondering what people’s sentiments are on this issue. Is it okay to let somebody go free if you take away his criminal vices, and if you made him no longer a threat to society, but you neglect to satisfy the victim’s sadism and you also neglect to make an example out of the criminal for purposes of deterrence? It’s not a cut and dry issue, and I’m not comfortable saying either yes or no.

I don’t think the victim’s sadism is something petty and negligible. I see it as quite human, and at bottom the basis for justice systems everywhere. If left neglected this desire to see the person who you feel wronged you suffer will inspire vigilantism, and take away from the feeling of people that the state will take care of things. I don’t think I’m on a slippery slope here in saying that if left unchecked this could destroy a state.

It doesn’t feel fair to punish someone who is vice free simply because it would change other people’s minds. It doesn’t seem fair to the guy who is being punished. Although as a potential victim of those left undeterred, I can see the attraction. Maybe it’s because we don’t have any concrete numbers which say so many people were saved from this one guy being (unfairly) punished, but these potential numbers don’t hold as much sway as one real person suffering. You know what I mean? Its like the arguments Bushies come up with that say yeah bush fucked up everything, but at least he kept us safe from another possible attack. The list of things he may have potentially saved us from is long and can be even said to be infinite, but it just doesn’t change much because what he actually did is much more concrete and has more sway on sentiment.

Heh. Great story, but I’m still a little slow…cause errr hangover. :-"

I hadn’t thought of this in terms of the duties of the criminal. Let’s see here. You’re saying when a criminal is caught and sent to jail to suffer this is his way of paying some sort of debt? I always thought this was some metaphorical thing old prisoners told themselves. “Paying a debt.” First of all what is this debt that one takes on when committing a crime, and secondly to whom is the debt owed, the victim or the state? This is a foreign way of looking at the issue for me. Can you flesh it out a bit, cause right now all I see is metaphorical language. It’s confusing!

I’m not arguing that you’re not a criminal when you’re made physically impotent, because the amputee probably still desires to do criminal things and I suppose the desire (intent?) still counts for something. What I’m saying is that there’s perhaps less reason to lock somebody away from society when they’re incapable of doing society any harm (and when they could possibly, after being rehabilitated, do it some good).

In my thought experiment you are rendered criminally impotent by having your vices taken away from you, not your capacity to manifest them. You are no longer a criminal in the sense of possessing criminal dispositions. If you are a criminal at all, it is because your crimes have tainted your identity, but I don’t buy this. It seems too…christian…like sin talk.

Regardless of how it is that the person becomes vice-free, the bottom line remains that the criminal will no longer want to do criminal acts. He is no longer a threat to society. If you still think punishing him is a reasonable thing, then I’d want to see the reasons. Saying that the punishment will be his method of paying his debts doesn’t mean anything obvious on the face of it.

But I’m curious, would it change anything for you if the criminal volunteered to take that drug?

I think functional deterrence is the only moral position from which to create a system of punishment, both for the perpetrator and for others.

Saying that they brought it upon themselves is a naive answer that ignores many of the structural causes of criminality; however, it is also an answer that works pretty well on the individual case. Those who are punished are those who broke the law and were caught. To address the bigger picture we’d need to take a couple of steps back to ensure that the laws themselves are just as well as their implementation. But while highly related they do remain separate questions to the one at hand.

The difference in those cases is that the bystander is innocent and uninvolved. In order to make the analogy proper, it wouldn’t be some random fatty. It would be the fatty whose negligence helped create the situation where the train is hurling towards those five people. In that case, I think you’d find considerably more heterogeneity in the answers.

My liangzhi says let 'em go. I agree that there will be some strain due to sadism. However, I think that our Christo-Capitalist society also emphasizes sadism as “debt” which exacerbates the problem. I’m not saying that the urge towards petty sadism can be eliminated but I do think it can be severely reduced by changing the language in which we encounter these sorts of situations.

That assumes a liberal conception of the person being punished. Given that, sure, what you say follows. I don’t think that the same conclusion could be reached assuming an encumbered person because their acts and existence necessarily extends beyond them. So even if the individual has been reformed the condition which got the individual in trouble still exists. Trying to eliminate that position is the ultimate goal.

When law is conceived in the language of debt, you get the best justice you can afford.

Justice is not for the criminal it is for the ones that have been affected by the crime. If a murderer gets off in such a way, how does this give justice to the victim’s families? He loses nothing they have lost family. They will know this person lives and is free to have a good life. mentally that would cause many people a great deal of problems. It does have the potential to lead to crimes of passion. Retaliation against the murderer. The guy would most likely be killed at the hand of a victim’s family member. So in a way the Gov’t would have forced another murder because the Gov’t knows that this crime is quite likely to happen. The Gov’t fails to protect the victim’s family from further harm from the murderer.
Justice did not happen in such a case.

This strikes me as a utilitarian argument. I have trouble accepting it in part because I think it may permit and even make it obligatory to sometimes punish innocent people. You see, if deterrence warrants punishment, then that means whenever the state has good reason to believe that the punishment of someone will cause people to be deterred, then they are obligated to do so regardless of whether the man did anything or not. Right? If this is true, and really, even if it isn’t, then I can see public exhibitions and even torture become permissible and maybe obligatory so long as the state is justified believing such acts would deter. Deterrence just doesn’t seem sufficient. What would justify punishment for me is the incapacitation of the criminal from doing further harm, but if he’s rehabilitated, then that’s taken care of. These others things which are left neglected by just letting the criminal go, like the sadism of the victims or the potential criminals left undeterred, just don’t seem reason enough to punish, but maybe that’s because I’m not seeing the full picture here.

Okay, so the punishing/pushing of the fatty would solve the potential deaths of the five people, and the punishing of the criminal would deter others from becoming criminals/being victimized by criminals. Unless I’m reading this analogie incorrectly, I’d have to say that the criminal who is caught is not responsible for the situation which his punishment would serve to remedy/deter, viz other criminal minds.


It seems that when one starts saying the criminal has a debt to the victim which can only be paid by suffering in front of the victim one is not merely dressing up sadistic feelings (which the religious folks see as something sinful or evil or unnatural or…whatever) but also making it seem like the victim has a right to see this happen; that lacking this, a great universal injustice would be done. This type of language makes justice impersonal, inhuman, dangerous.

One of these days, man…this idea of self is going to hit me and I’ll finally get it. Maybe. Right now, lacking this understanding of the encumbered person, the idea that it’s okay to punish the rehabilitated criminal as long as this is in an effort to remedy the conditions which created him seems…out there.


I understand what you’re talking about, but do you think appeasing the victim’s family’s need to see the person they feel responsible suffer is something that warrants the punishment of the criminal by the state? It doesn’t seem like enough reason to officially punish someone to me.

This is justice:

[size=20]release of some venom.[/size]

When a crime is commited the first thought should be to prevention of more crimes. So you must think how. If a person recieves simply a readjustment of their mind with out suffering for their crime. How does this discourage others from commiting crime? It does not Others desperate enough to commit a crime or those that have just a desire will think or believe that the crime is worth doing because you only get a shot or adjusted. No big deal. You get off scott free pretty much. Kind of like kissing a kid that just disobeyed you for the 10th time. Yea, that kid is going to listen to you.

Second :How do victims feel about the crime done to them? Lets say someone just stole 10$ from you Should they recieve the same treatment as a serial killer? Would you want their blood for that 10? Nahh, A slap on the wrist doing community service is far better than slapping them in prison or readjustment or killing them.
But your beloved family just got killed by this guy, Nothing happens to him, You will more than likely give your own punishment by killing him or others that love him. By the state giving a thumbs up to this guy they just allowed another crime to happen. If the killer had forfieted his life or had to stay behind bars further crimes would not have been commited.

Punishment is not mainly justice it is prevention. If you ever dealt with kids you know they are all different. Some kids listen very well, never disobey,. Others are sporadic about listening , still others are far too curious and active they get into trouble all the time. You can’t treat all kids the same. You can tell one kid that they did something wrong and that kid will never do it again. You can try it on a very active curious kid but, it won’t work, that kid must be taught that dire consequences occur when they are disobedient. Like some dogs can walk without a leash others must be on heavy leashes.
All this translates inot adult mentality too. if their are no dire consequences for actions then why not do it? We are not exactly a hive mentality. We are individuals and we put our hands in the cookie jar if we think we can.
People need to know there are severe consequences for commiting crime especially murder. We barely control ourselves so we rely on set rules to keep us inline.

Prevention is always a good reason to punish, toss in justice for others and costs well readjustment just seems futile.

punishment has nothing to do with deterrence directly. sure, the existence of systems of punishment does have somewhat of a deterring effect on crime, and this is used as further rationale… but the real reason punishment is NECESSARY is purely psychological and political: revenge and control.

the common man wants revenge against those who wrong him, even abstractly by wronging others that COULD HAVE BEEN him had he been less “lucky”. and society needs to punish criminals because society needs to exert control over its citizens, and criminals are the most efficient way to exert this control.

first let everyone “join the in group”; then create a system of “rules”; now, single out people who go against these common rules and label them “bad”; associate these bad people as “against” the rest who follow the rules, who are now able to define themselves as “good”; now society is free to exert control over them as it wishes. a simple release of energy. and in doing so, the masses feel vindicated and live this revenge vicariously through others, feeling as if they are the ones exerting control via a psychological trick of ego inflation and association with the crowd. its a win win… that is, for everyone except the “criminal”.

This is very bothersome, but at the same time I would it find it petty and absurd that the state would keep this guy who is no danger to anyone behind bars for the reason that this would help to send a message to other would-be criminals. These would-be criminals are not the responsibility of this guy being punished, so why should he suffer for them? (wow, we just went full circle to that utilitarian fatty analogy and Xunzians point about it!).

Suffering to send a message. It just doesn’t seem fair. I finally see that deterrence IS absolutely necessary for any moral punishment system, but it is far from being sufficient.

Always amazes me when people insist on keeping punishments despite having no pragmatic benefit whatsoever over the alternative personally. I mention no names. What people don’t realise with a lot of the time is most criminals don’t expect to get caught so don’t always care about deterrent as much as people think. It’s probably only the career criminal that starts to factor in the risk (ie its more of a deterrent to those caught regularly than those committing crime, which is why it works to some extent). And certainly homicides which are for the most part single cases, usually are unplanned and due to circumstances where aforethought didn’t factor into the equation as such. Of course there are no career criminals in murder, you do it more than once being arrested in between and the likelihood is you’ll spend more than 50% of your life in jail. So its unlikely to be as much of a deterrent as most people imagine I think.

Western Europe has the lowest crime rates and is the safest area in the world to live generally in terms of homicides, at some point we have to accept that there will always be a certain amount of crime and all we can do is limit it by the buzz words they like to use these days, ie tackling the roots of crime, poverty, lack of education, lack of prospects etc.