On Philosophy

July 23, 2006

Community Ethics and Punishment

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:21 am

Last time I discussed how accepting “community ethics” implies we should think about self-sacrifice / altruism, and today I will see how these principles handle the idea of punishment. For those of you just tuning in the basic principle of community ethics is that it is ethical to act in the best interests of the community, and it is unethical to act against the best interests of the community. Additionally it is unethical to remove someone from the community against their will, which prevents ethics from mandating that we treat some people badly in order to benefit the rest of the community, because this would be equivalent to removing those people from the community.

Punishment is another tricky subject for ethical theories. It is easy for an ethical theory to condemn some acts as wrong, but it is less easy to see how ethics mandates we treat people who commit such acts. After all punishment can be seen as an ethically wrong act itself if it is preformed on individuals who didn’t commit a crime. What justifies treating people who have done wrong differently, and why should we punish people who have done different wrongs differently?

In my eyes most modern forms of punishment, namely imprisonment and execution, are equivalent to removing someone from the community. Since this violates the second principle, that people shouldn’t be removed from the community against their will, then you may feel that “community ethics” prevents individuals from being punished. If this were true it would be necessary to discard “community ethics” and start over.

Consider first the case of habitual criminals or people who commit major offenses. Concerning both these kinds of people I would argue that they have already chosen to cut themselves off from the community. Earlier I defined the community as people who interact with each other, up to several degrees of separation. Clearly even these types of criminals interact with their victims, so let me define more sharply the definition of a community. The more concrete definition of a community is that it is made up of people who interact in a mutually beneficial fashion or to accomplish common goals. Clearly then the habitual criminal or the person who commits major offences (usually violent crimes) is demonstrating that they have no desire to be part of a community, as defined in this way. Thus if they are not part of the community, by choice, then it is perfectly acceptable to punish them by imprisonment, ect, because the protection given by “community ethics” to members of the community no longer applies to them.

No everyone who commits crimes however is necessarily demonstrating that they lack a desire to participate in the community, at least in general. There is still a need to punish such criminals however, because an absence of punishment would encourage crime by implicitly condoning it. Thus a system of punishments for crimes is good for the community, but, as dictated by the second principle, such punishments can’t involve cutting the criminal off from the community, and thus only punishments such as fines and community service are acceptable. Of course someone who tries to avoid these punishments is indicating that they don’t want to be part of the community, and can thus be imprisoned.

The topic of crime brings me to considerations of private property. Theft for example is only a crime if you believe in private property, and I am sure that there are some people who will confuse “community ethics” with communism. “Community ethics”, however, is not the same thing as communism because the ownership of private property, and as a consequence capitalism, is actually good for the community, since it encourages people to work their hardest. Thus capitalism for the most part would be considered morally good. I say for the most part because there are two aspects of capitalism that the system of “community ethics” must judge as immoral. One is the possibility of extreme poverty (or death / being forced into a life of crime due to lack of money), which is the same as cutting people off from the community against their will. Even though “community ethics” encourages capitalism it also demands, at the same time, that there be protections in place against people falling into extreme poverty and being trapped there. The possibility of extreme wealth also poses a problem for the community, since those lifted up to such heights are also effectively removed from the community; they no longer desire the same goals as the majority of people, nor even need other people to live, and thus they may feel free to act unethically, against the best interests of the community.

With these remarks however I may be venturing too far away from ethics, into political philosophy. Although it may be true that much of political philosophy can be seen as a consequence of one system of ethics or another, it is only peripherally related to the topic at hand, and so I will leave off here for today before I start making judgments about what system of government ethics demands. Hopefully coming soon will be a formalization of the various principles I have been discussing, so stay tuned.

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