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The Purpose of Punishment   (New York)

Posted on: Friday, 25 October, 2019  10:15
Updated On: Friday, 25 October, 2019  10:16
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While the evolution of humanity is supposed to improve the social relations up to the level when punishment is redundant; the system of punishment is reported to develop and integrate deeper into the developed society. In the contemporary world, there are two basic approaches towards explaining the functions of punishment: utilitarian and retributive. While the retributive philosophy presumes that the offenders are to be punished because they deserve the punishment; the utilitarian theory suggests that the purpose of punishment is to discourage, or deter the future wrongdoing. This paper argues that the utilitarian philosophy of punishment is more beneficial to the humanity because it aims at improving the social structure and interpersonal relations and bullying essay.


Undoubtedly, the philosophy of punishment is greatly debatable. It includes numerous concepts and approaches that try to explain the phenomenon of deviance and justify the mechanisms and functions of punishment. Specifically, in order to comprehend the attribution of punishment from the perspective of utilitarianism, one can refer to the humanistic theories such as Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, as well as person-centred concepts by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Besides, the relationship between the offenders, their community, and punishment is thoroughly discussed in the light of four main sociological perspectives. These perspectives are Durkheimian theories, Marxist studies, and the scholar works by Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias. In addition, the theories of deviance should be considered as the basis for the development of the punishment systems.

Undoubtedly, the punishment should make the delinquents obey the law and social norms; simultaneously, it should demonstrate the power of the collective conscious in anticipating the unacceptable behaviour. It resonates with the Social Learning Theory by Bandura. A well-known psychologist believes that people are active information processors; thus, they tend to establish the connection between their actions and appropriate consequences. This link is evolving while children observe the performance of their role models. While defining the purpose of punishment in this light, one can rightfully conclude that it serves for educating the young on how to distinguish between the right and wrong. Moreover, it encourages the young members of society to organize their life in the frames of legal and ethical norms set by this community.

What is more, the Social Learning Theory suggests that the development of cognitive abilities, which are essential for learning the appropriate behaviours, happens exclusively inside the society. If one associates this idea with the concept of punishment, it is natural to presume that the ways of public reproach also serve the purpose of shaping and maintaining a proper societal structure. In these ways, the Social Learning Theory by Albert Bandura corresponds to the utilitarian viewpoint on the punishment and explains its societal functions.

Furthermore, in order to avoid the use of punishment as revenge, it is critically important to explore the views of the humanistic psychologists. These scholars believe that the human behaviour should be considered not only through the eyes of the observer, but through the eyes of the person doing the behaving. The founders of the humanistic psychology were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Both scholars believed that one’s needs for self-actualization are the main motivators that rule the people’s behaviour. This approach put human’s needs in the centre of all societal processes; thus, it helps to eliminate the plausibility of using the punishment as the tool of vengeance (the retributive theory). Besides, the corresponding scrutiny can be used to mitigate the penalty because, if one observes the reality from the offender’s perspective, it often becomes clear that the community is also in charge of a deviant behaviour development. Therefore, when the crime has already been committed, the punishment should be used to correct the offender’s behavior and anticipate the development of deviance in other individuals.

While trying to comprehend the nature of deviance, one should refer to the Labelling Theory by Howard Becker, which suggests that the negative labelling causes the development of the corresponding behaviour. Simply put, a person becomes deviant when he/she is labelled so. Consider the case, if homosexuals are deprived decent job opportunities because of their sexual orientation, these individuals may opt to the criminal actions because of the impossibility to be legally employed. In other words, Howards Becker argues that the process of developing the deviant features is closely connected with the society’s treatment of a separate member of the community on the basis of certain characteristics. In this way, the society creates the outsiders, who are potentially ready to become the law-breakers.

While comprehending this important insight, one should realize that the purpose of punishment is not to exclude a social element from the community, but to turn him/her to the right path. The practical implications of this idea are the following: a person should not be condemned until the guilt is proven and; in the case it is proven, an offender has the right to the respectful and humane treatment. Consequently, the purpose of the punishment should be neither revenge nor labelling (creation of the outsiders).

Taking into account the fact that punishment is used for demonstrating people what behaviour is deviant, it is appropriate to remember that nobody should be isolated from the community because of having similar qualities with the offender (s). Unfortunately, apart from forming the outsiders, labelling begets the stereotype threat. The stereotype threat is an active societal agent of the deviance. Consider the case’ people are afraid to be stereotyped on their gender, race, or other qualities. Supposing that the stereotype characteristic is one’s race, in the case of a criminal act committed by the black individual, society tends to attribute the inclination to deviance to other individuals with the black skin. This situation creates new outsiders.

What makes the things worse is the fact that, even if people do not associate the skin color with deviance, certain individuals may experience a corresponding stereotype threat. As a result, this anxiety would compel them to behave in accordance with what they think the others expect from them. Therefore, the purpose of the punishment is to assure the fair disposal of the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities between all members of the community. This approach aims at anticipating the occurrence of labelling and stereotyped behaviours because the main function of penalties is to help every individual maintain the life within the legal and moral frames.

Another theory of deviance is Travis Hirschi’s Social Control Theory, which presumes that people tend to become criminals when their connection with the community weakens. It complements the Labelling Theory by explaining why an outsider is more inclined to commit a crime than a person with strong social bonds. If one associates this concept with the utilitarian philosophy of punishment, it is possible to state that the process of penalizing should not break or weaken the offender’s system of social bonds.

Further, the Differential Association Theory by Edwin Sutherland educates that the development of deviance is predefined by the ill-treatment and destructive interpersonal communication. As a result, the inclination to criminal actions is formed during the socialization, which means that deviance is directly linked to the rules of sub-communities. Besides, the stronger the bonds between the members of one community are, the stronger the influence it makes on a particular individual; thus, there is a greater possibility of being involved in the criminal behaviour. Therefore, the function of punishment is to weaken the ill connections and lessen bad influence of a group on a certain person. Simultaneously, in this case, the punishment educates the entire group on how to distinguish between the acceptable and unacceptable actions, which should discourage from committing crimes not only the offender but also people who are emotionally connected to him/her.

While evaluating the sociological perspectives on punishment, one should refer to the concept by Emile Durkheimian, which states that the punishment is the indicator of the social development. Durkheimian argues that the punishment functions as the maintenance of the moral order in a well-developed community. In particular, its purpose is to protect the shared values of a society. Therefore, the more elaborated the societal structure is, the more values its members share and, thus, the more variations of crimes (and respectively punishments) exist. Durkheimian’s views differ from the utilitarian philosophy since the scholar accentuates the relativism of the wickedness. However, he adheres to utilitarianism by accusing the punishment of being a means of revenge and stresses that this process should be utilized in order to maintain the set values.

Furthermore, the Marxist perspective suggests that the punishment is an economically conditioned state apparatus that plays an ideological and political role in ruling class domination. These studies refer to the political economy of the punishment stressing the fact that it serves to satisfy the needs of the ruling class. In such a manner, according to this theory, the role of punishment is to maintain the necessary order, the characteristics of which are predetermined by the ongoing economic and political processes. In a word, the punishment is the justification of established authority. This definition discords from the relativism of deviance that was discussed earlier. At the same time, it confirms that the role of punishment is to maintain the order by protecting the social structure of a certain community.

The next sociological perspective was developed by Michel Foucault. The scholar scrutinizes that the punishment focuses on the specific technologies of power-knowledge that operate in the penal realm and links them to broader networks of discipline and regulation. Simply put, according to Foucault, the purpose of punishment is to ensure harmonious cooperation between different social institutes. In practice, this goal can be achieved by correcting the behaviour of the offenders and demonstrating the price of law violations to other citizens; it also requires applying the utilitarian approach while executing the punishment.

Finally, the fourth perspective on punishment belongs to Norbert Elias. It emphasizes the significance of the cultural sensibilities and the ‘civilizing process’ in the shaping of modern penal measures. In other words, the punishment serves for providing the insights into the established psychic and cultural dogmas of a certain community. Undoubtedly, the civilizing process does not suggest punishing for the punishment.

Summing up, among the two main theories of punishment (utilitarian and retributive ones), the utilitarian philosophy must be considered as the only feasible theory while penalizing the offender. This approach is critically important for the future successful development and strengthening of the political, economic, and cultural aspects of the social structure. The utilitarian approach is humanistic and points to the high level of mental and moral development of a certain community. Besides, it serves the purpose of educating on how to distinguish between the right and wrong. Moreover, the utilitarian philosophy of punishment can significantly reduce the occurrence of deviance and stereotype threats in the society. As a result, applying utilitarianism in the penal system would assure that an individual with his/her rights, freedoms, and needs is a crucial element of justice. The insight is critically important for the adequate socialization of every person.


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