Back in my undergrad criminology classes, the professors would often raise interesting case studies of crimes where the benefits to society of punishment were unclear. Often, these were cases where giving “just deserts” to one party harmed another innocent party, for example the accused’s dependents. Inevitably, one classmate would respond to such case with “they knew what they were getting into” or simply “fry ’em!”
The punitive impulse is strong. It effects an attitude toward crime that one sees everywhere, and especially these days toward illegal border crossing. The reactions to people being punished for crossing the border show this clearly in part because of the inhumanity of the punishment being delivered – in this case, as in many others, not just to the accused.
Here’s exhibit A:
As hilariously disingenuous as the first part of that is, it’s the last part that I want to focus on today – the part where she says that children were brought to the US under “irresponsible” conditions. In her mind, and in many others’, the irresponsibility of bringing kids across the border under threat of separation justifies the harsh punishment of separation, because only irresponsible parents who deserve to lose their kids would cross the border. (Left out of the discussion, as always, are whether children of such parents “deserve” institutionalization and lifelong trauma). That one word, “irresponsible” encapsulates a lot of the circular thinking of deterrence.
That thinking always follows this path: the more severe a punishment, the more deserving of it a rational person will be for committing a crime that carries that punishment. If the punishment for jaywalking were squassation, only a truly irresponsible person would jaywalk, ergo that person would deserve squassation.
The weaknesses of this logic are first, that people aren’t rational in avoiding punishment or in any other domain. Criminology, like economics, has undergone a reevaluation since its purely rationalist days (I want to say it started with Beccaria…), but this post-rationalism hasn’t permeated the collective consciousness. Just as people aren’t solely motivated by marginal dollars, they aren’t solely motivated by the sticks and carrots of criminal justice. Also, people tend to apply this philosophy of punishment unequally – for populations with which they have little empathy, they see only sticks and carrots, but for their own community, they want trust, norms, and the restitution of dignity to victim and transgressor.
Criminology (at least at the undergraduate level) divides rationales for punishment of criminal behavior into 4 categories: retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and deterrence (specific and general). My feeling is that people feel highly retributive towards people that they feel little connection too, and that this feeling is often recast for public discourse in deterrent terms – terms that are self-justifying.
As a bone to throw my remaining TEFL readership, let me say that I think this idea of self-justifying punishment has some importance in syllabus design as well – we could design a pop quiz on an assigned reading that is 30% of final grade, and it would be justifiable in the same sense that public flogging for vandalism is.