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Moral and Practical Considerations of Punishment

Much of our criminal justice system is based on punishment, with the understanding that it serves two purposes. First, it prevents future offenses, deterring the offender and others from engaging in antisocial behaviors. Second, it satisfies the desire to even the score for those harmed by an offense. People believe that justice demands that offenders receive commensurate punishment for their crimes. In other words, some people support punishment on consequentialist grounds and others on their desire for retribution. Consequentialists believe punishment is morally permissible if it has positive ends, such as reducing crime. I have always supported consequentialists’ stand as I used to believe punishment deters crime, which is good. I was surprised to learn that punishment does not deter crime in all cases due to biological factors and their unique interaction with the environment. While it is politically expedient to have harsh punitive policies, it is wrong as it violates the person’s moral rights by inflicting burdensome treatment on individuals with unsatisfactory ends.

Punishment, the inflicting of burdensome treatment on offenders, is a government institution based on the assumption that it controls crime. The proponents argue that punishment, while it infringes on the individual’s rights, is morally permissible as it leads to the cessation of crime (Hoskins, n. d.). They believe that incarcerating an individual prevents them from committing other crimes. Also, imprisonment communicates to potential criminals the high cost of crime, encouraging them to choose the alternative of avoiding offending. Other theorists support the intentional infliction of burden on criminals as a state-expressive act condemning the criminal. It allows citizens to differentiate between ordinary government practices burdensome to the general public, such as tax payments and punishment for criminal activities. Proponents of Punishment argue that it positively impacts society as it leads to crime reduction through incapacitation, reform, and deterrence.

Scholars and practitioners object to the assertion that punishment has positive aspects. They argue that there is limited empirical evidence that punitive measures such as incarceration or capital punishment, including execution, deter crime. Offenders tend to be irrational and impulsive and do not engage in cost and benefit analysis. Therefore, they will still offend irrespective of the threat of punishment. The documentary “The Brain Made Me Do It” supports the objection to consequentialists’ assertion that punitive measures can reduce crime (CBC, 2016). The documentary presents research by university professors on the brain differences between psychopaths and ordinary people. They argue that offenders may be wired differently, predisposing them to commit crimes. Indeed, most criminals exhibit a certain amount of mental illness, and treating the individual world is more effective in reducing crime than incarceration. Crimes such as drug trafficking exemplify the futility of incapacitation. Immediately after a person is incapacitated through incarceration, the criminal entities select another one who immediately fills the gap (Tonry, 2006). The medical field and psychology indicate that punishment does not deter crime as the offender’s brain is wired differently and does not respond rationally to threats of punishment.

Another objection to the consequentialist argument regards the high cost of punishment relative to benefits. Even assuming that punishment had positive impacts as proposed by its supporters, its negative implications far outweigh its benefits. Incarcerating an individual affects them, their families, and the broader community (Elliott, 2011). For example, placing a breadwinner in prison will negatively impact their household. The children will end up in the streets committing crimes for sustenance. Also, after the incarceration period, their earning power will drastically reduce, and they will have challenges taking care of the family. They might resort to crime to sustain the family. Incarceration breaks up families, increasing the likelihood of the children gravitating toward juvenile delinquency. Also, there are no guarantees that the person will not commit crimes while in custody. Therefore, punishment costs are too high compared to the possible benefits of the practice.

The nature and nurture debate is no longer valid, further negating the punishment benefits propositions. Advances in science have increased our knowledge of the role of the interactions between genes and the environment and their impacts on behavior. Some scholars supported the thesis of genes as determinants of human behavior, while others argued that the environment played the most significant role in shaping human action. According to the documentary “My Brain Made Me Do It,” the brain and the environment play a significant role in a person’s behavior (CBC, 2016). Two people in different environments will develop varying behaviors. However, the brain still plays a significant role in determining a person’s behavior. People are wired differently and are unlikely to develop similar behavior even when living in the same environment. While nurturing the environment may impact a person’s behavior, an individual whose brain (Nature) has deficiencies will develop criminality in environments where the community members do not exhibit antisocial behavior. The Nature and Nurture question is dead, with the former’s superiority casting a long shadow over the arguments concerning the benefits of punishment.

The death of the debate concerning whether genes or the environment determines human behavior has a significant impact on the morality of incarcerations and other punitive measures. It is unethical to punish someone who was conditioned from birth to exhibit criminal behavior. Some are unaware of the social infringement denoting criminal behavior, while others do not empathize with the victims. Punishing such individuals does not add value to the individual or the community. It will not change their criminal tendencies emanating from the deficiencies in the brain, and it is unlikely to prevent others with similar brains from committing crimes (Gilligan, 2000). A criminal would benefit more from treatment than punishment. Therefore, the death of the debate regarding nature or nurture suggests that punishment has no practical value or moral justification.

Punishment has no practical or moral value in society. Its proponents support it based on consequentialist ethics and retributive ideas. Consequentialists argue that punishment is morally justified as it benefits individuals and society and reduces crime. They argue that incarceration and other forms of punishment hinder the individual from committing more crimes and deter potential criminals from offending. Retributive justice proponents argue that it is only fair that a person who offends receive punishment for their actions. However, there are no benefits that can justify punitive measures imposed on some members of the community. Brain research indicates that psychopaths are wired differently from ordinary humans, predisposing them to commit crimes. Punishing a person who is mentally unwell for infringing on social rules that they are unaware of is immoral and serves no practical purpose. Offenders appear incapable of weighing the costs and benefits of their actions and, therefore, cannot be threatened into desisting from offending. Therefore, treating offenders provides a better approach to preventing offending than punishment.


Elliott, E. M. (2011). Chapter 2— “If punishment worked, I’d be Saint Andrew.” In Security with care: Restorative justice & healthy societies. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Gilligan, J. (2000). Punishment and violence: Is the criminal law based on one huge Mistake? Social Research, 67(3), 745-772.

Tonry, M. (2006). “Purposes and Functions of Sentencing.” Crime and Justice 34(1), 1-52.

Hoskins, Z. (n. d.) The Moral Permissibility of Punishment. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

CBC. (2016, March 10). My brain made me do it [Television series episode]. In The nature of things. Retrieved from


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