Leeds School of Social Sciences

Much has been written recently concerning prison abolition but I think that this welcome intent is unlikely to prove fruitful while people desire punishment (in toto, i.e. not just imprisonment) to persist. An essay about the desire to punish requires first that we ask what punishment is, and penological examination conventionally begins with the idea that it must be unpleasant. The reasoning then proposes that if this is so, there must be a justification for it, because doing unpleasant or painful, or damaging things to people is prima facie bad. These justifications tend to say either punishment is right and therefore our duty, or that punishment is, over all, good in virtue of its consequences.


However, we may also argue that both of these positions are so flawed that there is no adequate justification for punishment. So, why do we punish people? Some have supposed that it helps unify society, or it is useful for the promotion of a capitalist economy, some say that it is an aid for the establishment of authority, for example, and I make some significant arguments to the contrary.


We also have a tendency to say that we punish people because they are responsible for what they do. However, should it be the case that we are not morally responsible for our actions because we are not absolutely free, for example, it is claimed that we cannot be punished for them. I contend that we are mistaken in our view concerning the what, why, and morality of punishment, that is, we do not know what it is that we desire other than to inflict pain, and suggest that an alternative reason for desiring punishment (punitiveness) is that we resent those we punish, furthermore, that this attitude does not originate entirely in us.


I claim that resentment (and if I am right, punitiveness) is made socially contagious, and politically manipulable via (among other things) mechanisms akin to that known as less eligibility. In this circumstance, I suggest that punishment is not a necessity, not completely natural, nor an inevitable part of the way that we solve social problems. Therefore, it is reasonable to hope that people will stop desiring it, and, fortunately, should they cease to desire it, its eradication must become more likely.

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