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Just punishment


We live in a society and it’s no secret that the line between chaos and peace is blurred each day. To ensure that peace is maintained, various governments introduce systems of punishment that deter and punish offenders to maintain sanity and harmony. But, can any form of punishment be considered just punishment? In philosophy, the justifications for just punishment can be traced through various theories that include retributive justice and utilitarianism. Retributivism is a theory of punishment that proposes that when an individual makes an offence, justice demands that they suffer in return. Retributive justice has its foundations in ancient texts like the Jewish accounts of the Old Testament, which proposes laws such as life for a life, and an eye for an eye. Other purposes of retributive justice are deterrence and the rehabilitation of the offender who is urged to correct their ways.


In retributivism, the major premise is that human beings have free will and rational thinking, qualities that enable them to make the right decisions. Hence every individual is assumed capable of making moral decisions and following the set guidelines of society. However, when a sane individual violates the rules and values of society, just punishment aims to restore their respect in the society and provide vengeance. Just punishment is when the individual offender is provided with a platform to regain their respect in the society by paying the debt they incurred when they made offences. After the deserved punishment is fulfilled, the offender can return back to the society as a free member, who has paid the debt to the society. Equally, retribution calls for vengeance since the offender deserves to suffer just as others did when they commited crime. This principle is founded in Judeo-Christian beliefs that if a man hurts another, they shall face a similar fate.


Utilitarianism, on the other hand, proposes that laws are there to maximize happiness in society, where crime has the opposite effect. Just punishment, therefore, is that which inflicts as much punishment as necessary to prevent any future occurences of the same. Essentially, since crime and punishment are not consistent with happiness, they should be kept at a minimum. The utilitarian theory considers the consequences of various actions, where punishment is seen as a factor that affects both the offender and the society in entirety. Any form of punishment, therefore, is considered based on the good it will create for everyone involved, but a unique factor is that just punishment should not be unlimited. An example of the utilitarian principle in justice is through the Presidential pardon where reformed and chronically ill prisoners are released. The logic is that these individuals are no longer capable of committing crime and longer incarceration will only contribute to more suffering which is more than necessary for them.


Like in retributivism, the utilitarian approach towards just punishment proposes that laws should serve to deter future crime since it addresses the individual and becomes an example to the rest of the population. Just punishment, thus, is that which creates the greatest good for the highest number of people, who are the law-abiding citizens. The chosen form of punishment, therefore, is one that creates the least miserable outcome for many, which discourages more crimes. Another rationale for the utilitarian approach to just punishment is providing the offender with an opportunity to re-invent themselves. In rehabilitation, the offender receives the needed mental treatment, rescued from addiction, and treated from chronic behavior disorder. Additionally, by learning new skills that can help them find employment once released, the justice system guarantees that the greatest good for the offender is realized. Ultimately, just punishment is one that benefits both the society and the individual by helping them start over again, with respect and dignity.


A hybrid theory that has found favor among many societies such as the United States is the denunciation theory, which combines the strongest factors of utilitarianism and retributivism. Denunciation aims to become a deterrence as it highlights the need that offenders need to be punished and publicly shamed to ensure that others do not follow in the same path. For example, retribution is manifested in the reception of a sentence that matches the crime, with serious offences attracting more severe consequences. Utilitarianism is also evident in the creation of parole and probation programs that limit punishments in ways that protect the offender and the society. From these philosophical stances, it emerges that just punishment is a goal that should always be pursued to ensure that the society thrives progressively.


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