Joshua Wegner Philosophy 101 12/07/00 Trentacoste Immanuel Kant vs. Joshua Wegner THE RIGHT TO PUNISH: RETRIBUTIVISM As a society we all accept the fact that if you do something wrong you must be held responsible for your actions and pay the consequences. We all accept the concept of punishment, even though we are aware that we, ourselves, could one day be subjected to answer for our actions. While we may all be in favor of punishment in general, it is often debated upon how or why we punish a criminal. According to Immanuel Kants Retributivism argument, “the punishment must be in exact proportion to the severity of the wrongdoing..” (Kant, 585) Kant believes that crime causes the scale of justice to be imbalanced, and claims that punishment restores that balance.
While I agree that Kants motives for punishment are reasonable, I find his solution to be weak in some areas, and/or absurd. Before one can refute or defend a philosophical argument, he must first understand it. Kants concept of Retributivism is a simple one; the punishment must equal the crime. It is important to note that Kant defines crimes as “Any transgression of the public law which makes him who commits it incapable of being a citizen” (Kant 586). “While criminals do not actually will their own punishment, their rational selves will the system of laws that involves the punishment they deserve.” It is equally important to note that it is only the right of the sovereign as the supreme power to punish.
His argument accuses all other standards as being “wavering and uncertain..” “..On account of other considerations involved in them, they contain no principal conformable to the sentence of pure and strict justice.” (Kant 587) Everyone has their own ideas on why a criminal should be punished. Maybe it gives us a sense of security. Perhaps it offers us a piece of mind. In some situations, punishment may be thought of as help for the criminal, rehabilitation, or possibly revenge. Along with the vast majority, Kant agrees on the importance of punishment; however, his theory is a little different.
Equilibrium. In order for society to be balanced according to Kant, the punishment must equal or cancel out the crime. While I dont disagree with his motives, I feel that there are many that he ignores. Shouldnt we take them all into account? The concept of punishment in itself is rarely questioned; however, the question of how we punish the convicted is still widely debated. According to Kants theory, the answer is fairly simple: the punishment must fit the crime.
Immanuel Kant is definitely one of those “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”, guys. He looks at society as a scale. Crime is placed on one end, making the scale unbalanced. In order to balance that scale, an equal amount of punishment must go on the other end. The problem occurs when we try to compare crime with punishment. There is no definite amount or degree of punishment that equals a certain amount of crime.
Its like comparing a quantity of x with a quantity of y. Without a specific value assigned to both x and y, the only way to compare the two is with speculation. Speculation leads to an imprecise resolution, thus resulting in an unbalanced scale (whether it be ever so slight). If there is no definite way to balance the scale, Kants argument proves to be uncertain or fallible. On top of that uncertainty, there are several situations that make Kants argument more questionable. To help clarify these uncertainties, Kant suggests that, “the undeserved evil which any one commits on another, is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself (Kant, 587).”While his argument provides solutions to many questionable situations, his answers are still a little shaky. Lets take theft, for example. According to Kant, he who steals makes the property of others insecure.
Therefore, he robs himself of all property and security. Though he has the will to live, he cannot have or acquire anything. The problem with Kants argument on theft is that there are varying degrees of theft. Suppose a person robs a bank, while another steals a piece of candy. Should the two suffer the same consequence? According to Kant, they should.
He then goes on to say that the criminal may substitute this punishment by yielding his powers to the state to be used in penal labor, thus resulting in prison time, etc. This helps Kant distinguish between big-time offenders and petty shoplifters; however, a question still arises. How much labor or time are you to assign to the criminal? (Which brings us back to the x vs. y question) There is no definite way to determine that one car is equivalent to 3 years in prison; therefore, Kants argument is not logical in determining how a criminal is punished. The finality of Kants solution in retributivism sets himself up for several questionable scenarios.
The biggest one and probably most controversial is his view on murder. As he so blatantly put it, “Whoever has committed murder must die” (Kant 586). In todays society, we have different stages of murder, thus different degrees of punishment. Would Kant possibly sentence a murderer if he/she was a child? What if the criminal had been mentally ill? Suppose this was a case of involuntary manslaughter? Does each of these situations demand the same punishment as that of a blood-crazed serial killer? Kant would have to answer yes to each scenario. Kant claims that the execution of the victim, “must be kept free from all maltreatment that would make the humanity suffering in his person loathsome or abominable”, perhaps in effort to display a little mercy amongst his harsh argument.
Is it merciful to put a child to death after killing his father who had abused him? I guess Kants mother never told him that two wrongs dont make a right. While Kant expresses good ideas and deep thoughts, it appears to me that hes missing the concept by a tweak or two. (According to my beliefs, of course) He seems to seek vengeance as his primary motive, while neglecting those of safety, deterrence of future criminals, etc. Perhaps Kant has a natural gift in declaring the equivalency of each wrongdoing. As for the rest of society; however, its not that black and white.
Kant claims that apart from his view, all other standards are wavering and uncertain (Kant 587). Not to totally disagree; however, I do feel that people should be held accountable for their actions, only my its my opinion that Kants Retributivism argument is not only a little extreme in some situations, but also somewhat wavering and uncertain.