Irony: when a Deterrent Becomes a Punishment

What a different world we would have if deterrents, one of the central tenets of punishment, actually worked like it was supposed to. But let’s face facts: they don’t, at least not often enough, not often enough that the damages of the punishments promised as deterrents aren’t hurting us all.


The amount of punishments we actually have to implement should tell us this. We have all, nearly every last one of us been punished as children, and millions are still being punished as adults, the correctional system is an ever growing industry. Perhaps many crimes are deterred, but enough to say that this is the best possible option for us? Is it working well enough?


This is an interesting question, “is it working well enough,” and the answer there would be dependent on some assumptions, the first of which, as always in this topic, must be our stance on Original Sin.


On one side of this doctrine, if we believe either the religious version, that Man is born with sin in his heart, or the evolutionist version, that Man is descended from beasts and must be civilized by force, then our view will be that a great deal of crime has been deterred, that left to our own we will be criminals. In this view, if we let up on the stick, crime will increase and civilization will collapse; in this view, without punitive restraint, the beast will rule.


On the other side of this doctrine, if we reject the idea that sin and crime are built into humanity and see people as basically good, at least like housecats, that is, good when food is plentiful, then we may look for other causes for crime, then we may need reasons why people commit crimes. No secret for anyone who knows me, or anyone who’s seen other posts of mine: this is the view I begin with. I am looking for reasons, I start with the idea that something, something in this life, in the here and now, is causing crime and violence. There certainly are genetic things, built in things on either side of the moral scale, but saying “the Devil made me do it” is not a reason that we shouldn’t analyze what we are doing in the here and now. To state it a slightly different way, declaring “that’s just the way it is” and refusing to look at our own activity, that is something like socio or psychopathy.


I am trying to deal with the deterrent aspect here, but this needs to be said. I’ve said it elsewhere in more detail, and please ask if this isn’t clear; this is an interactive media, after all: punishment damages us. The damages of abuse are clear and well documented, and the damages of corporal punishment are of all the same sort, also well documented; corporal punishment is rapidly moving to the wrong side of the law in much of the world. What isn’t so well documented, what I am trying to show, is one or both of two things, which have the same result.


  1. “Corporal” punishment is really the only kind there is. There can be no punishment in the world except that it is made to happen, physically, except that it is backed up with force. We are corporeal beings after all. We don’t generally volunteer for our punishments, they are imposed, against our will and this ultimately must be done by force, even if that means in a particular case it is through the threat and learned experience of force, that is, even if every single punishment doesn’t require physical force, a general program of punishment  does.


  1. Much of the damage of abuse, corporal punishment, and this fictional non-corporal punishment isn’t physical. It is emotional, cognitive, psychological, and it stands to reason that it isn’t the physical aspects of abuse and punishment that cause it. The damage a young child suffers when its parent hurts it somehow on purpose and then promises to do it again, this doesn’t require that the hurt be only physical. This is the damage of emotional betrayal (among other things).


Damaged people are more subject to all sorts of social problems, crime being one of them, and being a part of many of these damages, addictions, self harm, promiscuity, violence. It seems to me, genetic or not, at least some of this is crime we are causing with our damaging, punishing ways.


But back to deterrents:


The first thing I would point out regarding deterrents are that their power increases as the certainty of their implementation increases, and of course that equation works also in the inverse. The power of a deterrent is lessened as the perceived chance of actually having to face the penalty grows smaller, meaning, if there’s a perceived chance the misbehaver can avoid the penalty, the deterrent can fail; this is only more true if the chance is real – and of course, many crimes and misbehaviours are not found out. Of course then, in anything but a totalitarian, police state, deterrents can and do fail, and damaging punishments ensue. If deterrents worked well enough, the prisons would not be so full, and we would not all be punished as children.


We offer these punishments in our effort to turn our kids and our adolescents away from misbehaviours and turn our adolescents and adults away from crime, and when it works, terrific, it’s all good. But when it doesn’t work, when our kids insist on their misbehaviours, or when our criminals do and we have to implement the punishment – well then we are damaging our kids, and further damaging these adult misbehavers, and we have made the shift from being the solution and trying to prevent crime and bad behaviour to being the problem, and actually causing it.


Defined as a joke with the power to make us cry, this is irony, a logical joke, but a sad, sad reality, the deeply ironic fallacy of deterrents.


If we believe in deterrents, but see crime remains, or increases, we may think the deterrents need to be stepped up, the penalties intended as deterrents worsened . . . and this probably only increases the damage, and doubles the horrible irony of our public policy. This is what is offered by our Law-and-Order politicians, more damage, more crime. (I’m looking at you, Stephen Harper.) That situation is of course only even more heartbreaking if we do that with our parental discipline, if we increase the stakes.


If this is not heartbreaking to us, we can consider that we have been desensitized to it. There is only so much horrible irony a person can take before we just switch off.


So, if my side of this argument is true, even partly, then punishment and deterrents, the very processes we hope will lessen crime and misbehaviours, could well be ironically creating the crime we are trying to stop. It’s also true that we have given these ideas a fair try – all of human history – and despite that things don’t change much, and that any lessening of the violence and brutality in this world has been accomplished by a net increase in humanity rather than an increase in penalties and deterrence schemes, we keep trying it. It’s well known that cognitive impairment is one of the many damages incurred by abuse and punishment. Perhaps this explains our inability to see this conundrum: perhaps we are slow learners.



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