Joshua Wegner

Philosophy 101

12/07/00

Trentacoste

Immanuel Kant vs. Joshua Wegner

THE RIGHT TO PUNISH: RETRIBUTIVISM

As a society we all accept the fact that if you do something wrong you must be held responsible for your actions and pay the consequences. We all accept the concept of punishment, even though we are aware that we, ourselves, could one day be subjected to answer for our actions. While we may all be in favor of punishment in general, it is often debated upon how or why we punish a criminal. According to Immanuel Kant’s Retributivism argument, "the punishment must be in exact proportion to the severity of the wrongdoing..." (Kant, 585) Kant believes that crime causes the scale of justice to be imbalanced, and claims that punishment restores that balance. While I agree that Kant’s motives for punishment are reasonable, I find his solution to be weak in some areas, and/or absurd.

Before one can refute or defend a philosophical argument, he must first understand it. Kant’s concept of Retributivism is a simple one; the punishment must equal the crime. It is important to note that Kant defines crimes as "Any transgression of the public law which makes him who commits it incapable of being a citizen" (Kant 586).

"While criminals do not actually will their own punishment, their rational selves will the system of laws that involves the punishment they deserve." It is equally important to note that it is only the right of the sovereign as the supreme power to punish. His argument accuses all other standards as being "wavering and uncertain..." "...On account of other considerations involved in them, they contain no principal conformable to the sentence of pure and strict justice." (Kant 587)

Everyone has their own ideas on why a criminal should be punished. Maybe it gives us a sense of security. Perhaps it offers us a piece of mind. In some situations, punishment may be thought of as ‘help’ for the criminal, rehabilitation, or possibly revenge. Along with the vast majority, Kant agrees on the importance of punishment; however, his theory is a little different. Equilibrium. In order for society to be balanced according to Kant, the punishment must equal or ‘cancel out’ the crime. While I don’t disagree with his motives, I feel that there are many that he ignores. Shouldn’t we take them all into account?

The concept of punishment in itself is rarely questioned; however, the question of how we punish the convicted is still widely debated. According to Kant’s theory, the answer is fairly simple: the punishment must fit the crime. Immanuel Kant is definitely one of those "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth", guys. He looks at society as a scale. Crime is placed on one end, making the scale unbalanced. In order to balance that scale, an equal amount of punishment must go on the other end. The problem occurs when we try to compare crime with punishment. There is no definite amount or degree of punishment that equals a certain amount of crime. It’s like comparing a quantity of ‘x’ with a quantity of ‘y’. Without a specific value assigned to both ‘x’ and ‘y’, the only way to compare the two is with speculation. Speculation leads to an imprecise resolution, thus resulting in an unbalanced scale (whether it be ever so slight). If there is no definite way to ‘balance the scale’, Kant’s argument proves to be uncertain or fallible. On top of that uncertainty, there are several situations that make Kant’s argument more questionable. To help clarify these uncertainties, Kant suggests that, "the undeserved evil which any one commits on another, is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself (Kant, 587)."While his argument provides solutions to many questionable situations, his answers are still a little shaky. Let’s take theft, for example. According to Kant, he who steals makes the property of others insecure. Therefore, he robs himself of all property and security. Though he has the will to live, he cannot have or acquire anything. The problem with Kant’s argument on theft is that there are varying degrees of theft. Suppose a person robs a bank, while another steals a piece of candy. Should the two suffer the same consequence? According to Kant, they should. He then goes on to say that