COLUMN: Is locking up the prisoners the best way to deliver justice?

By October 24, 2017 No Comments

By Zishi Zhang

Having watched a documentary on a “supermax” prison recently, where the punishment of the inmates, which includes being locked up in solitary confinement 23 out of 24 hours per day and extremely limited visit opportunities, I wondered on what grounds can we justify punishment. Is this the best way to deliver justice, both for the inmates themselves and for society?

Utilitarian thinkers such as Cesare Beccaria would argue that the ground for such justification is for the common good of the society. For Beccaria, the aim of the punishment is to contain the ill motives of the individual. Since “no man ever freely scarified a portion of his personal liberty merely in behalf of the common good,” it is left to the community to execute such punishment for the purpose of maintaining order and stability, which was the reason why humans joined together to form communities in the first place. His theory is based on the principle of utility, put forward by Jeremy Bentham. For Bentham, every ethical decision is a mathematical problem – he designed the felicific calculus in order to figure out the option that can bring “maximum pleasure for maximum number”. He added that if a punishment to a crime deems “unprofitable,” then it would not be necessary. To maximize the utility of the punishment system, Bentham even drafted up a blueprint of the most perfect prison, the sinister panopticon. As shown in the picture, this huge complex can be managed by one single guard, because the design allows him to have visual access everyone.

I find such theory extremely troubling. Both the purpose for the punishment (for the common good) and the extent utilitarianism would go to maximise utility (the design of panopticon), sound no difference than a totalitarian regime which would reinforce its rule by terrorizing its citizens. The law in this situation seems to be a “tool” being used to achieve the purpose of “deterrence”. My rejection is based on that such methods would undoubtedly increase utility, but at the same time, dehumanize the offenders and erase their individualities. Some may argue that this could be justified with the theory that rights come with obligations and that if they cannot fulfill their obligations, rights shall not apply either. That response would be rational, but my reservation is in regards to communities with less liberties, where the judiciary may be influenced, or even controlled, by the people in power. If we cannot guarantee judicial independence, then would it still be a good idea to hand the absolute authority to dictate punishment for the “greatest good”? Are we still justified to prosecute the offenders if the laws are not just in the first place? Is it a natural crime to be disadvantaged or politically dissented?

Immanuel Kant once accused utilitarianism as “serpent-windings.” The purpose for the punishment, Kant argued, is “retributive”: punishment is not for any good results, but for the solemn purpose of equalising the offender’s punishment to his crime, for otherwise an injustice has occurred. The reason Kant firmly rejected the “deterrence” purpose of punishment is that it would be totally against the categorical imperative which states do not use humans as a mean to an end. For Kant is a deontological philosopher, that means he believes every ethical decision we make, we shall and shall only base it on carrying out our “duty” alone.

Kant’s justification solved my previous reservation of dehumanizing individuals by changing the purpose from deterrence to retribution. However, it also troubles me that Kant would go as far as granting the judge the power to sentence capital punishment as he believes that “the equalisation of punishment with crime, is only possible… by extending even to the penalty of death.”

These contrary arguments have no problem on paper whatsoever, but when applied to real life, I feel that something is lacking. I do not agree the purpose of punishment should be that of either “deterrence” or “retribution”. It should be “rehabilitation”. I believe that human nature is changeable, consequently, if we emphasize deterrence or retribution, instead of rehabilitation, then the inmates will not have a chance to change. Their behavior will not change if there is no rehabilitation. My second reservation to both of the theories is how to present the dissent. Take the famous case of the suicide of Socrates, who accepted his fate because of “political obligation.” Whether or not he actually committed the crime he was being accused of can be subject to debate. Yet he did not want to disobey the law even if it is abused by the oligarchy. I suppose that is why he accepted the death sentence, but did not  allow the state to carry out the execution. The Socrates example demonstrated to us that if the purpose of punishment is deterrence or retribution, there is always a danger to succumb ourselves to the tranny. Only when the purpose of the justification is that of rehabilitation can justice be delivered.


Zishi Zhang is a first year student, who was born and grew up in China, and moved to the UK six years ago. Zishi received the prestigious Diana Award and was exclusively interviewed by the New York Times for his activism. Philosophical Investigations runs the fourth Tuesday of every month.

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