The right to punishment Notes for April 22

Main points

Morris defends four propositions:

  1. There is a right to punishment
  2. It is derived from the right to be treated as a person
  3. The right is inalienable and absolute
  4. The denial of this right implies the denial of all other rights

He defends these propositions by comparing two systems for regulating human behavior: the therapy and punishment systems. (He thinks some system for regulating behavior is inevitable).

We talked about these and the view about the value of human life that underlies them.

Value of human life?

Morris’s case for the right to punishment turns on the importance of choosing to human life. The therapy model treats criminal behavior as a disease to be cured. At the extreme, those with the underlying condition are liable to “treatment” even before committing any crimes. Punishment, by contrast, is reserved for those who chose to commit crimes.

But Albert said he didn’t think it was obvious that persons have to be capable of making choices that they are held responsible for. Children and the mentally ill are people despite the fact that we don’t hold them responsible for their choices.

I think that’s a good point. There is an alternative view, according to which we treat creatures as persons by caring for them. We care for normal adults differently than we care for children or the mentally ill. But we care for all of them as people.

At the very least, Morris has to show why it’s better to restrict the category of “person” to those who are responsible for their choices. It seems to me that this is clearly a valuable thing that many people do and the capacity to do it is one that most of us wish to retain. But it isn’t obvious to me that it’s a defining characteristic of a person.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2009. It was posted May 6, 2009.
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