Professor Neil Levy, visiting Leverhulme Lecturer, University of Oxford, has recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:
Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who ‘free-ride’, taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices – ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society.
Our moral emotions fuel our impulses toward retribution. Retributivists believe that people should be punished because that’s what they deserve. Retributivism is not the only justification for punishment, of course. We also punish to deter others, to prevent the person offending again, and perhaps to rehabilitate the offender. But these consequentialist grounds alone cannot justify our current system of criminal justice. We want punishments to ‘fit the crime’ – the worse the crime, the worse the punishment – without regard for the evidence of whether it ‘works’, that is, without thinking about punishment in consequentialist terms.
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