Topic: Society

Punishment and Ethics

One of the many ways that punishment intersects with ethics is in its power to define and prioritize cultural values.

This is true of both formal punishment, such as when an individual is found guilty of breaking a law, and informal societal punishment like criticism, shunning, public disgrace, and loss of prestige and status. The persistence of the death penalty for murder in the American penal system, for example, influences our culture’s thinking in many other ethical issues involving life and death, such as euthanasia, the withholding of medical care, and abortion, as well as penalties for lesser crimes. Reserving the ultimate penalty for murder makes it more difficult in America to justify a citizen taking a life in other circumstances. Our culture continues to send the message that ending the life of another intentionally is so unacceptable that the one who does so may deserve to have his own life taken from him. It is no coincidence that many European countries that have outlawed capital punishment also have come to endorse euthanasia and assisted suicide. In societies where murder may result in only a decade’s imprisonment or less, the pros and cons of taking life are weighted differently.

The effects of informal punishment or the lack of it on our ethical values may be even stronger. The New York Yankee fans who now cheer admitted (well, sort of) steroid-user Jason Giambi because he is hitting home runs again are making the statement that they value on-field performance over off-field integrity. If fans begin cheering Rafael Palmeiro again the minute he hits a game-winning home run, it will become clear that those who watch baseball don’t care if heroics come from hard work or a syringe. The lack of rejection for steroid users will contribute to a new ethical order in which chemical enhancements are “OK.” To visit another sport, the National Football League has collected a virtual All-Star team of convicted or charged felons. It was recently supplemented by Randy Moss, who unapologetically announced that he was a frequent user of Marijuana, which is to say, a frequent law-breaker. Every cheer for Moss and his fellow NFL criminals reduces the societal stigma against disrespect for the law. Forecast: more disrespect, from the players and their fans.

This phenomenon occurred with a vengeance when society stopped penalizing celebrities who had children out of wedlock. From a point in time when film star Ingrid Bergman’s career was derailed by public outrage over her pregnancy by a man married to someone else, celebrities in music, film and sports routinely have children without the formality of marriage vows and garner no negative reaction from the public or the media. Message: having children without being married is not “wrong.” Result: soaring numbers of single mothers across the nation’s socio-economic spectrum. Everyone recognizes that this causes major problems, but nobody, or almost nobody, will declare that the conduct is “wrong.” Even fewer seem willing to lay some of the blame on the doorstep of celebrities like Demi Moore, who recently declared that she didn’t need a legal marriage to regard boy-toy Ashton Kutcher as her “husband.” The recent shocking news item about a Canton, Ohio high school in which 65 out of 490 female students are pregnant is directly related to the kind of national culture celebrities like Moore create for the rest of us. If we believed child-bearing without marriage was wrong, then we would be willing say so and enforce appropriate expressions of societal disapproval. But we’re not. Movie heartthrob Brad Pitt, so publicly wed to “Friends” siren Jennifer Aniston, has engaged in open adultery and marital infidelity with free-spirited actress Angelina Jolie. Has his popularity suffered, and with it his per-movie fee? It appears not. The public’s reaction begins to establish an ethical norm, one that will have divorce lawyers cheering.

Similarly, the U.S. military has spoken volumes with its adamant refusal to hand out significant punishment to those in the chain of command leading to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. In this it has been bolstered by the glaring lack of any widespread expression of outrage on behalf of the U.S. public. America’s culture has spoken: torture and abuse of our enemies may not look good, but deep down, we think they have it coming. If we thought otherwise, we’d punish the leadership who allowed it to occur.

Recently, the National Hockey League decided that a 20-game suspension was proper punishment for Vancouver Canucks lineman Todd Bertuzzi, who permanently damaged Steve Moore’s body and career by breaking his neck on the ice in an unprovoked March 8, 2004 mid-game attack. Gary Bettman, the NHL Commissioner, decided that the year-long NHL strike counted as Bertuzzi’s punishment, and now Bertuzzi will be free to play hockey while the victim of his attack still suffers pain, memory loss, and diminished physical abilities. Again, the level of punishment sends a message and defines the culture. The NHL would rather have the occasional disabled player than act decisively to curb violence, and that is exactly what they will get.

Step by step, case by case, decision by decision, America’s culture of acceptable and unacceptable behavior is constantly evolving according to the conduct we are willing to tolerate. Punishment often has unpleasant results for both the punished and the punisher, but without it, ethical distinctions will blur into incoherence.

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