The right to punishment Notes for April 19

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).

Morris’s case for punishment is unusual because it does not depend on the victim’s perspective. Both criminals and unaffected third parties have reason to want the system of punishment, he maintains. As Roslyn and Chris pointed out, the victim’s perspective is relevant too: it’s unsatisfying to think that those who victimize us might be treated as victims too and in need of therapeutic aid. That doesn’t take anything away from Morris but serves to highlight the unusual nature of his argument.

Our discussion

A significant part of our discussion revolved around a point that Max and I both made. It is that Morris seems to exaggerate the effects of the therapy system on the way we think of ourselves. If we adopted the therapy system, we would move the line between the sane and the insane to include criminal behavior. That doesn’t obviously threaten the idea that human beings in general are responsible for their behavior. At least, it doesn’t threaten it any more than our present practices do. We don’t think the insane are responsible for their behavior but we do think that the sane are responsible. The therapy view would just shift who we consider insane.

In response, I think Morris could legitimately say that the way that sane, non-criminal people understand themselves would change. If we can’t be responsible for bad behavior, how can we take credit for our good behavior?

Elin said that there is still lots of room for choice within the permitted options. Perhaps that’s the way to answer this response.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2010. It was posted April 19, 2010.
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