We recently read Crime and Punishment in my Literary Tradition IV class. I’m not going to write a book review, though; just go read it for yourself and see how awesome it is. All I have to say about the book per se is that Svidrigailov is an amazing character, the final three chapters he appears in are fascinating, and the book as a whole is fantastic – my only complaint is with how much Dostoevsky has emotions lead to physical effects – fainting, sickness, etc. It’s somewhat unbelievably Romantic.
Anyway, I’m not writing a book review – but the book actually fits nicely with what I was talking about a few months ago and promised to write a post about but never did (I actually started a draft but never figured out exactly what I wanted to say – you might see why from the rest of this post).
I’m talking about the question of, why do we punish criminals?
Is it because it is “just”? Is it because for the good of society we want to deter people from committing crimes? Is it to rehabilitate the criminal? Do any of these really make sense?
I was thinking about it for a while, and in the end, no… they don’t. If by “make sense” we mean have any firm philosophical backing. If we punish because it is just, aren’t we taking on the role of God, making the state into an idol that determines right from wrong? And what about the fact that “justice” doesn’t always lead to what is best for society? If it’s just a purely utilitarian concept of deterrence, don’t we have to say that even if something is intrinsically wrong – take, for example, murder – that if outlawing it doesn’t reduce the murder rate, we shouldn’t outlaw it? That’s crazy. If we’re trying to rehabilitate the criminal to put him back into society, what are we even to make of life sentences and the death penalty? They seem absurdities – but “common sense” dictates that those are the appropriate punishments for murder. And I’m a big fan of common sense.
What we might want to say is that we can’t say exactly what our reasons for punishing criminals is, but having criminal law is obviously a good idea, and that all of these suggestions for why we punish criminals ought to be taken into account as evidence for why punishing criminals is a good idea… we justify punishing criminals through a “concilience of inductions” or something like that. But this isn’t satisfying either, in my opinion. And it gives us no way to say what is an appropriate punishment other than “common sense”.
What the book Crime and Punishment points towards is a mixture of justice and rehabilitation – or, rather, redemption. The final goal is to rehabilitate the criminal – but this can’t be done without justice being satisfied (though justice tempered with mercy). Protecting society from the criminal is a nice benefit, but not the primary purpose of the punishment. This makes a lot of sense to me – but it’s based on a fundamentally Christian framework, with the Christian meanings of justice, mercy, and redemption…
But ah well. This might be the best we’ll get. Government are all founded on unjustifiable assertions anyway…