Thursday, September 22, 2011

Crime, Punishment, and Kant

Given the recent execution of Troy Davis, capital punishment is once again a hot topic of conversation. For my part, I cannot say I am happy about the event, nor can I say that I believe Troy Davis was innocent of the crime. Having not taken part in the proceedings and not being privy to all of the material in the case, it's difficult to pass judgment from afar. Consequently, I question the arguments of some of those protesting his execution, since they can know little more.

Of course, many are opposed to the execution on the grounds that capital punishment is simply wrong. That is a different can of worms.

For those that believe this to be the case, their arguments boil down to a simple standard: the state lacks the right to kill, to deprive a citizen of their life. It's a simple and pure argument and supported by many great thinkers and jurists, as well as by the sense of the founding documents of the United States of America. After all, the Declaration of Independence declares "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And the Constitution is clear (or is it?) when it specifically forbids "cruel and unusual punishment" in the Eighth Amendment. What could be crueler than killing someone?

But how does capital punishment stack up to the morality of someone like Immanuel Kant? Remember, it was Kant that developed the Categorical Imperative, a means of assessing moral duty in every situation. Its three formulations:
1) Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. 
2) Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end. 
3) Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.
Very clearly, from Kant's point of view, the justification for any punishment cannot be about serving the greater good, be it keeping criminals off the streets, deterring crime, or even rehabilitating law-breakers. Because all of these justifications would require us to treat people as a means to an end, rather than an end in their own right.

So how can we determine punishment? Should we even actually have punishments? What would the basis be for varying punishments in the law?

For Kant, this is all very easy to answer, despite the depth of much of his thinking. Of course there must be punishment, because that is--to Kant (and me)--the means through which security is provided by the sovereign authority of a society. Law and Justice determine crime and punishment: to ignore (break) the law is crime, and punishment for that transgression is Justice.

And the specifics of Justice are likewise easily understood: the only justification for punishment is guilt (again, deterrence, public safety, rehabilitation, etc. are immaterial) and the only standard for the pinishment is--therefore--the crime, itself.

Now, many would see this as "an eye for an eye" kind if structure, and indeed Kant's thinking on this is held up as an example of what is called a "retributivist theory of punishment." But note that there is nothing in Kant about revenge. That is not the basis, at all. For Kant, the state acts to punish, and it does not do so to serve the needs of those wronged by a criminal's actions. It punishes because that is the only means of establishing Justice.

Yet, it works out in practice to be very much an "eye for an eye" type of thing. For Justice requires the punishment to fit the crime, since the crime is the only legitimate basis for the punishment.

In the specific case of capital punishment, Kant was very much in favor of its application because he could not imagine a worse crime or a worse punishment. For Kant, the individual who takes the life of another for personal gain, pleasure, or the like (1st degree murderers) sets their own standard here. And returning to the Categorical Imperative, we can ask ourselves what we would deserve in such a situation, if we murdered another in this manner. Can the honorable person really claim that they deserve to live? I think not.

Thus, the execution of the guilty is the only rational choice, the only means of treating that individual as an end in their own right. It is the compassionate and Just--if difficult and unpleasant--choice for Kant. And for those who agree with his thinking on this.

Cheers, all.

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