Punishment Is a Deliberate Increase in Human Suffering


Let’s start right out with an example. In a courtroom, Jack is the defendant accused of torture. The plaintiff, Jill, claims to have underwent an insufferable ordeal causing her much physical and emotional trauma. There is enough evidence to see Jack indicted by the prosecution. He is sentenced to life behind bars.

In our scenario we have two people: Jack and Jill. Prior to the crime being committed, they both have a tally of zero in our numerical Suffering Score system. This system will allow us to measure numerically the total degree of human suffering in a particular scenario.

When Jill is tortured, we increase her total suffering to a count of one. The total amount of human suffering at this point is now one. When we sentence Jack to life (note the particular punishment he receives is irrelevant here) he receives a degree of suffering as a result. We now have a Suffering Score of one for Jill and a Suffering Score of one for Jack.

At this point, my premise is glaringly obvious: two wrongs don’t make a right. But it is simply so. Our judicial proceeding has systematically doubled the total human suffering from one to two.

Now you might be saying, but Jack deserves it for the misdeeds he committed! And this is where it gets really interesting. Imagine you are Jill. You suffer a horrendous amount of pain because of Jack. Now imagine you’re Jack. You (i.e. “I”, “me”) suffer for a long time in prison. You experience the pain of regret, anxiety, and an intensely morbid dawning of the realisation that you will suffer confinement and remorse for the rest of your life. Regardless of the fact that Jack was entirely at fault in this case, he will absolutely undergo extended and unfathomable suffering as punishment.

When we observe the situation, we can say without a care in the world that Jack deserves to suffer. To the bystander, Jack’s life sentence is fully warranted; it’s a good result in the name of justice!

But boy are we glad that we are not Jack!

What a horrible experience it would be to suffer life in prison! We think that, because we don’t personally experience Jack’s suffering, it isn’t such a terrible thing. We’re aware that the suffering is happening but it is just not in our reality. It’s in Jack’s reality. In Jack’s reality, he does have to endure endless suffering now and it is very real and very vivid.

But because we don’t actually taste this suffering, we can warrant it as being just. Because we’re never in Jack’s shoes, we don’t have to endure years of sorrow and misery. And as the onlooker, as the prosecution, we manage to convince ourselves that we did the right thing. But what we did was nothing more than increase the amount of human suffering resulting from the situation.

When I say that everyone is “I”; everyone is “me”, I’m doing my best to tap into a particular ontological perspective. You must understand that Jack’s reality is the only reality that can possibly be experienced. He cannot jump out of his body and begin living as someone else. You, Jill, the prosecution, and everyone else is just a very small figment of his experience in life. In the same way, my reality is the only reality I’m experiencing – and for all I know, it is the only reality that truly exists (i.e. solipsism). And so by inflicting suffering on Jack as punishment for his crime, the only available reality (seen through an “I” or “me”) is one of great suffering.

It is particularly hard to convey this ontological impression of global subjectivity in words but it is exactly this understanding that justifies my philosophy today. Without which, there is absolutely no value in what I am writing about today. I don’t expect many readers to comprehend this notion fully. In fact, I would suggest almost all would not. But as an optimist, I will simply take this as an opportunity to train my skills in communicating such fundamentally ambiguous and abstract concepts.

At this stage, the majority of readers will be saying, yeah but by punishing Jack, this incapacitates him thus preventing him from committing more suffering. It also acts as a preventative measure for budding torturers! That’s how our legal system works – misdeeds are largely prevented by our ability to foresee the punishment they will incur. Perhaps a temporary increase in gross suffering (i.e. punishment) results in a lesser net suffering?

Regardless, I’m still not satisfied with this. What alternatives are there? There simply must be better ways of responding to human suffering than by inflicting human suffering upon the offender! If it is our mission to reduce human suffering where at all possible, we must endeavour to scour for suitable alternatives even if they appear ill-contrived at first. Currently, we’re taking two steps backward and one step forward!

It would be dangerous of me to armchair philosophise like this without actually offering some sort of a solution. Historically, philosophers have been able to rattle on about worldly inadequacies quite well but often omit their oh so pragmatic solutions after uncovering the deficiency.

This article is becoming quite long now so I will be very terse by briefly introducing a possible solution. If our mission was to reduce human suffering, while it is noble one, it could be rivaled and possibly overshadowed only by the promotion of happiness. That is to say, the truly noble mission is to promote maximal happiness.

In keeping with this spirit, we can look to respond to suffering in a very unorthodox manner. Previously, our judicial system has fought fire with fire. The intimidation and fear factors seem to work but unfortunately they do quite overtly warrant the institutionalised augmentation of human suffering.

So an alternative approach may be to respond to suffering (i.e. a case of rape, for instance) by, instead of prescribing punishment in the form of suffering to the “at fault” party, we could perhaps increase the happiness of those who suffered. We would now be extinguishing the fire of suffering as opposed to dousing our offender in petroleum and throwing them in as well!

For this approach to work, our justice system would look very different. Now, if you torture or rape someone, you don’t encounter any punishment. Your Suffer Score remains as is. The case is no longer about your punishment but instead about comforting the victim. It’s about systematically removing those tallies next to the Suffer Score of our victim by increasing happiness. Without looking at all into practicality, monetary compensation as well as psychological support may be options to consider for the victim of a rape case.

I’m going to leave it here and allow others interested in this particular approach to further expand upon the pragmatics.

7 Comments

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  1. Joshua McD

    this is a joke right?
    you introduce a false dicotmy (we can’t punish the crimminal \b_{and} help the victim at the same time) while also failing to provide any evidence that simply helping the victim will lessen the total amount of suffering. that arguement would only hold water if virtually everyone never reoffended and were also completely unaffected by any punishment/deterrents in the first place.

    you make the case for a very apoligetic country full of criminals.

    sweden has a system that seems like a better thought out version of your argument. having a crimminal suffer doesnt undo the deed, nor does it inherently stop them from reoffending (america has high rates of reoffenders). what sweden does however is treat the cause of what made a person a crimminal, while they are in jail. jail is treated more as a place to get help rather than punish. however, deterrents still play aa sognificant role as a supplemwntary system.

    many philosophers fall into a rut of wanting to implement utopian ideals into an imperfect world with too much variability.

  2. Josh McD

    this is a satire right?
    you introduce a false dicotmy (we can’t punish the crimminal \b_{and} help the victim at the same time) while also failing to provide any evidence that simply helping the victim will lessen the total amount of suffering. that arguement would only hold water if virtually everyone never reoffended and were also completely unaffected by any punishment/deterrents in the first place.

    you make the case for a very apoligetic country full of criminals.

    sweden has a system that seems like a better thought out version of your argument. having a crimminal suffer doesnt undo the deed, nor does it inherently stop them from reoffending (america has high rates of reoffenders). what sweden does however is treat the cause of what made a person a crimminal, while they are in jail. jail is treated more as a place to get help rather than punish. however, deterrents still play aa sognificant role as a supplemwntary system.

    many philosophers fall into a rut of wanting to implement utopian ideals into an imperfect world with too much variability.

    • Harvey Meale

      Thanks for the comment, Josh! Yes as I discussed on Facebook with a few others who shared your position, indeed this system would not work in any existing western society but perhaps does have a place in a utopic society.

      In fact, our entire existing legal paradigm does rely heavily on incapacitation and it seemingly works very well. It would be near impossible to speculate as to how crime statistics would vary if a radically alternative system was introduced today, but it would clearly be nothing short of a disaster. I certainly don’t think any culture today is prepared for such change. My argument today was geared towards understanding the ontology of globally subjective consciousness as opposed to the pragmatics of law.

      Also, I’m not entirely sure what your initial point is referring to. As far as I’m aware, the logic is sound and there is no such false dichotomy. Could you perhaps clarify?

      If the benefits of incapacitation weren’t so obvious, (i.e. in a utopic society whereby crime is sparse and arguably warranted and where repeat offending was minimal) there would be much higher grounds to consider the pragmatics of implementing a system based off my revision.

      Of course, this system would not be implemented in an apologetic country full of criminals, or criminals as we know them today.

      Sweden, as with your example, does a great job of stifling the latent cultural issues that lead towards crime. But of course, even in Sweden, we see huge emphasis on incapacitation, which is completely expected, rational, and righteous in any nation today.

      What is most admirable is that they prevent crime by fixing these underlying issues and don’t simply promise greater punishments for crime. It’s this understanding that crime is rarely evil in nature or done with ill-intentions, but is simply a reflection of a flawed society.

      So yes, you’re entirely correct and perhaps I should have stated this more overtly in the post. By no means am I suggesting we immediately implement this skeleton philosophy into society. It would be a catastrophic disaster. I stated that pragmatics would need a lot of scrutiny should a practical implementation ever become viable.

      Regardless, the philosophy of emancipating society from a sadistic, suffering-driven legal system is a noble one to have, as far as I can see. But to truly get behind the idea, I really can’t stress enough the importance of understanding the ontological preposition I discussed throughout the discourse.

      Once again, thanks for the comment!

  3. Josh McD

    ‘‘ It’s this understanding that crime is rarely evil in nature or done with ill-intentions, but is simply a reflection of a flawed society.‘‘ -This train of thought is misguided. You assume too much from the human condition. Often crime is evil in nature and done with ill intentions. You assume that everyone is born equal and it is only the situation that one finds oneself in or society that pushes someone to crime or violence. There is far too much variability in the human genome to rule out that some people are just born evil or sadistic.

    “emancipating society from a sadistic, suffering-driven legal system” -I doubt you will find any judge who wants to send people to jail for the sake of it. Sadistic isn’t quite the opportune word here.

    “instead of prescribing punishment in the form of suffering to the “at fault” party, we could perhaps increase the happiness of those who suffered.” – This is what i was referring to in my first point. There is a better middle ground of punishing Jack so he doesn’t re-offend, while also helping Jill. However, you can’t just manufacture happiness to constantly patch up after Jacks rampage. Jack re-offending will decrease the global happiness; no one wants to clean up after Jack.

    No matter how much people help jill, you will never get back all of that happiness. Jill will be ‘given’ happiness from others, but time and money lost by those other will slightly decrease their happiness.

    The system of helping the victim and punishing the criminal to prevent further crime is the most pragmatic system and it is the one in use today. A utopian system requires utopian people, which will never exist.

    • Harvey Meale

      You assume that everyone is born equal and it is only the situation that one finds oneself in or society that pushes someone to crime or violence.

      What else would you suggest causes crime or violence? This goes back to the illusion of free will. It is exactly the situation one finds oneself in that dictates our actions. My recent post on the moral responsibility of psychopathy sufferers discusses this in more detail. Any such crime you would deem evil or done with ill intentions are actually particularly resultant from the inauspicious childhood and development of the offender. We don’t choose to be born. And we don’t choose the childhood we receive or the upbringing we are given. This is the crux of the argument for free will being illusionary.

      You assume that everyone is born equal

      This isn’t an assumption; it’s fact.

      There is far too much variability in the human genome

      If we cannot control the genome we receive, which we cannot, then it is particularly obtuse to suggest someone can be born evil. If they turn out evil as a result of their biological programming, then our legal system is fundamentally ill-equipped to serve these people.

      I doubt you will find any judge who wants to send people to jail for the sake of it. Sadistic isn’t quite the opportune word here.

      This is of course true. What I was referring to when I said sadistic was the barbaric nature in which we combat suffering with suffering. This barbarism is something we’ve all grown so attuned to that it would seem as though there are no viable alternatives. And in practicality, as I mentioned, there most likely isn’t at this stage.

      There is a better middle ground of punishing Jack so he doesn’t re-offend

      My whole premise here is that we ought to consider alternative means for inhibiting people from reoffending – radical alternatives to the current method that is incapacitation through suffering. Do you think it is truly impossible to incapacitate someone without the allocation of suffering? If you answer yes, I suggest it would be due to simply not having thought about alternatives.

      The system of helping the victim and punishing the criminal to prevent further crime is the most pragmatic system and it is the one in use today.

      Yes, most likely.

      A utopian system requires utopian people, which will never exist.

      Well that’s a particularly grim outlook. It is hard to imagine, especially in any extension of our lifetime, but to say it will never exist may simply be distrustfully pessimistic.

  4. Rosie H

    Heavy meal, your words give me indigestion. Your optimistic imeals are unpalatable.
    Before you reply, I request of you to comPLATE this comment and reply in significantly better taste than your previous comments.
    Have you ever been Jill? Have you ever been so victimized and been in such unimaginable pain beyond words’ apt description? I am going to assume (me the fool) yes to have formed such a heavy opinion. Or perhaps not. It is absurd to equally measure pain and suffering in a numerical unit to each and every person who are most absolutely unique.
    Maintaining happiness and peacefulness is simply better than to have suffering thrust upon ‘you’ and then someone else trying to fix it up as an alternative, in the same way as when one is cooking a sauce – it is better to restrict the heat at a lower temperature than to burn the sauce and then try patch it up as a ‘solution’.
    And so, if it is not too much, I ask of you also to provide a realistic solution that combines your deliciously optimistic imeals with the bittersweet flavours of reality.

    • Harvey Meale

      Hi Rosie,

      Thanks for the comment!

      Have you ever been Jill? Have you ever been so victimized and been in such unimaginable pain beyond words’ apt description?

      No, I haven’t ever been Jill but I’m capable of empathising. Either way, it’s somewhat irrelevant to the point I was making which is that this ordeal causes suffering in her subjective reality. I think we can both agree on that.

      It is absurd to equally measure pain and suffering in a numerical unit to each and every person who are most absolutely unique.

      And with this I would completely agree. My incredible, mathematically complex and advanced numerical suffering scale wasn’t devised for this matter, though. It’s role is to observe two alternate subjective realities (Jack and Jill’s individual experience) and then determine whether suffering (as opposed to contentment or happiness) is occurring or not. If suffering is true, the Suffering Score is increased simply to indicate that this is the case.

      Maintaining happiness and peacefulness is simply better than to have suffering thrust upon ‘you’ and then someone else trying to fix it up as an alternative

      I’m not entirely sure I follow but I from my understanding, I would agree entirely.

      And so, if it is not too much, I ask of you also to provide a realistic solution that combines your deliciously optimistic imeals with the bittersweet flavours of reality.

      So to reiterate, the point I was making is that punishment is in itself a form of suffering that is prescribed by our justice system. Now in our society, the main purpose of this punishment is incapacitation (which means to prevent people from re-offending) but it also acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals. I wonder now if it is possible to prevent further crime without punishment in the current form of stripping people of their freedom through imprisonment… What are the alternatives to our traditional system of ‘crime –> punishment’ that don’t involve suffering as a means of incapacitation? I believe the answer may lie somewhere in Sweden as well. How can we make criminals repent and deter them from reoffending without making them suffer for their crime? I think it would have a lot to do with psychology and reconditioning people to hold different values.

      To come up with a realistic solution that can be integrated in our society is beyond the scope of this post. I’m simply not qualified to even think about it. My main purpose here was to identify that, on a metaphysical level, the punishment we give criminals is no more righteous than the suffering the victim went through. I then suggest that a better approach would be to explore means for incapacitation that don’t rely on the prescription of suffering.

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