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Punishment is the imposing of a negative or unpleasant consequence, usually in response to a perceived wrongdoing or crime.

One of our core practices is that if we support punishment, we only do so for the purpose of preventing harmful actions, and not for the purpose of inflicting pain and suffering. This practice is related to our beliefs that, in a healthy state of society, people take responsibility for their actions, people are not coerced or deceived into doing things that they would not choose to do of their own free will.

What does it mean to "prevent harmful actions"?

There are several different ways that punishment can prevent harmful actions.

  • Growth and learning - Punishment can help someone realize how their actions affect others. An example would be, in the case that a young boy vandalized a bathroom, to explain to the boy that someone cleans the bathroom, and to make the boy clean the bathroom. This task may be unpleasant, but the degree to which the task is unpleasant is directly related to helping the boy realize the impacts of his actions on others.
  • Protecting people - Punishment can directly keep someone from harming others, by keeping the person out of society, in a place where they are kept under watch and directly prevented from harming others. An example would be placing a person in jail after they have committed several violent crimes, or placing an inmate in solitary confinement if that inmate is physically threatening other inmates. These punishments may be unpleasant and cause suffering, but they serve the primary purpose of preventing the person from harming others.
  • Deterring harmful actions - Punishment, when applied consistently in society, can serve as a deterrent to crime. However, there are limitations to the effectiveness of the deterrent feature of punishments, discussed below.

We do not support punishment when it goes beyond these purposes. In particular, we do not believe that people "deserve" to suffer after they have committed crimes or actions that harm others, and we do not believe in retributive justice.

Limitations to the effectiveness of punishment as deterrent

If someone is going to do something harmful to other people, it is better for them to not do it because of a fear of punishment, than for them to do it at all. However, this is not an ideal situation. Ideally, they would not do it at all, even in the absence of the threat of punishment.

Threat of punishment creates an incentive for a person to avoid being caught committing a crime or convicted, not a true incentive to avoid whatever action is prohibited. If the threat of punishment is the sole factor holding people back from doing something that they otherwise want to do, people can be driven to take measures to avoid detection, while still doing whatever is prohibited. As an example, high fines for speeding might cause more people to obey the speed limit, but they might also compel people to buy radar detectors to avoid being caught speeding.

Punishment and self-motivation

Punishments that are too harsh, and are motivated primarily by a desire to make a person suffer, may not help a person to take responsibility for their own actions.

Punishing people who are not responsible

In some contexts, authority figures impose punishments on people for actions that are not theirs. These examples can include:

  • A classroom or group being punished for the actions of an individual or small subgroup.
  • A child being punished for the action of their parents: Example: [1]

These sorts of actions can be problematic, and can cause undesirable outcomes, even if they do cause some positive outcomes as well. For example, group punishments can drive students to encourage each other to follow rules or act in healthy ways. But group punishments and other cases of punishing people for actions of others can send a mixed or muddled message about responsibility, because they encourage people to take responsibility for the actions of other people. Our beliefs specify that in a healthy state, people take responsibility for their own actions.