Criminal punishments in the society are approved by many as a necessary action against those who commit crimes. Despite this universal appreciation of punishment, various theories have different justifications for such punishments. The Kantian approach differs from the utilitarianism approach in justifying criminal punishments. This paper analyzes how the Kantian justification for criminal punishment differs from the utilitarian approach,
Research design and Method
This research will be based on the historical concept. It entails analyzing the characteristics of the two theories and determining how best they could justify criminal punishment in the society as a means of punishing unjustified behavior. It will employ the archival research method, where information will be sourced mainly from what various authors have written on the topic. It will entail analyzing the available literature. One advantage with this is that the information is readily available for analysis.
The utilitarianism approach towards criminal punishment
Bentham’s utilitarian approach emphasizes on maximizing utility. He defines this to mean ‘that which brings the greatest happiness in people’. Going by this definition, it is apparent that Bentham’s justification for criminal punishment is largely based on its ability to maximize utility. A key component of utilitarianism entails human actions being judged by the consequences they bring. This means that actions of an individual which turn out to reduce happiness should be punished. Essentially, one’s actions should have the consequence of making other people happy. Bentham argues that any action that a human engages in ought to promote happiness levels in humans. Bentham further explains this theory by arguing out the two categories or measurements of happiness: the quantity and quality. He then argues in favor of consequences as opposed to legality as the basis for justifying human actions (Bentham, 1983).
Going by the above approach, Bentham’s proposition stipulates a situation where legality is avoided in relation to consequences. An action which is within the precincts of the law, but reduces the happiness of people has no justification. On the other hand, an action which violates the law but brings about the greatest happiness to people should be justified. This is Bentham’s approach. Going by this approach, it would seem that human actions that can be justified will differ from one place to another, depending on the impact they will have on the local people. With this being the case, one can easily find the connection between utilitarianism and criminal punishment based on the utilitarianism theory. In the contemporary world, punishment is often a consequence of certain actions, more so those which inflict pain to people. With this being the case, a utilitarian will argue that actions that have a negative impact on the happiness of people should be punished.
How utilitarianism justifies criminal punishments
Criminal punishment in the society is an important element for rewarding behavior. Because of this, there should be put in place rules and regulations on how the same will be administered. One characteristic of criminal punishments is that they tend to take away the happiness of the offender. Because this entails denying the offender certain rights and freedoms, there is need to ensure that such punishments are justified (Bentham, 1983). There is no doubt that criminal punishments cause pain. However, a utilitarian will argue that such pain is inflicted to a smaller part of the society (offender), with the rest of the society benefitting and becoming happy. This is consistent with the principles of utilitarianism; that the greatest happiness is achieved.
A utilitarian will see several ways through which criminal punishments will bring about the greatest happiness in people. The actions of the offenders in the society have a negative impact on day to day experiences of the people in a society. Punishing the offender will likely mean that such wrong and illegal activities will be reduced. This move is likely to boost the happiness in people. Because of this, proponents of utilitarianism have various justifications for criminal punishments, as discussed below:
Utilitarian justifications for criminal punishment
Punishment as a way of preventing commission of further crimes
The first argument that proponents of utilitarianism cite is that criminal punishments help prevent offenders from engaging in further crimes, which necessarily makes people happy (Lyons, 2002). As already argued, crimes in the society tend to have an undesirable effect. Whether it is rape, murder, theft, or robbery, the effect is that the affected members will be subjected to some pain. There are several reasons that force offenders to commit crimes. This is in spite of the fact that they are aware of the negative impact that crime has to the society. Punishing the offender may entail imprisoning them, fining or even putting them on probation (Bentham, 1983). Imprisoning them will mean that they will be locked in jail, thereby being incapacitated and losing the ability to inflict further pain on people. Effectively, this will lead to a decrease of crimes in the society. People will then live happily, without any worry as to similar crimes being committed against them. A utilitarian will argue that this is consistent with the principles of utilitarianism, that the greatest happiness is achieved.
The role of punishments in deterring crime
Utilitarianism stipulates a connection between criminal punishment and deterrence of crime, more so from the potential offenders. Bentham’s argument is that any form of criminal punishment must be guided and be informed by the impact it will have in the society. If the impact does not promote happiness among community members, then the punishment in question cannot be justified. Most criminal punishment systems tend to focus on discouraging potential offenders from committing crime. The predictability brought about by criminal punishments ensures potential offenders are discouraged. If a murderer, for instance, is hanged, potential offenders will fear committing crime because they know that they risk being hanged. This will motivate them not to commit such crimes. As a result of this, people in the society will not be subjected to various crimes. The result is a happy society. Insofar as punishment can achieve this, utilitarian proponents will approve such punishment in the society.
That punishment educates and reforms offenders
Utilitarianism justifies criminal punishment because of the believe that it plays a role in reforming and educating the offenders. Such an effect is positive to the society, because it will lead to better inter-personal relations. Criminals who have been imprisoned tend to learn their lesson the hard way. Correctional facilities play a major role in rehabilitating the offenders and making them better persons in the society. Consequently, with such people reforming, there will be a reduction of criminals in the society. Less criminals is tantamount to less crimes, meaning that society members will have nothing to worry (Bentham, 1983). This will, no doubt, increase happiness in the society, meeting the utilitarianism threshold.
Criminal punishments, more often than not, entail deprivation of people’s rights. Punishment entails subjecting the offenders to cruel and painful conditions. Because of this, there is a need to ensure that only criminals are punished because of their offences (Lyons, 2002). It will be against the principles of utilitarianism to punish an individual wrongly, or by relying on false evidence. This is the only way that criminal punishments will meet the utilitarianism threshold.
Why Discouraging crime is consistent with utilitarianism
There is no doubt that all crimes cause sadness among the victims, thereby reducing their happiness levels. Criminals, on the other hand, tend to benefit from what they don’t deserve. Because of this, the type of punishment to be prescribed ought to be based on the happiness the society will get. It is for this reason that proponents of utilitarianism oppose punishments that are in vain. The main aim of punishment, according to Bentham’s school of thought, is not to harm the criminal, rather to reform them and help them become better members of the society. Taking this approach into question, the role of capital punishment is put into sharp focus. Capital punishment tends to deny the offenders an opportunity to reform. In addition to this, capital punishments may play a role in motivating other criminals to revenge. The effect of this is that the society will be restless, leading to more unhappiness. Because of this, utilitarianism does not support capital punishment on the precincts of bringing the greatest happiness to people. Despite this, utilitarianism finds a unique way of justifying capital punishment, without necessarily arguing that it brings the greatest happiness to the society.
One criticism that has always been levelled against the utilitarian justification is that criminal punishments are more legal-based, as opposed to the ethical position. Today in the society, there exists several laws that define the type of punishment that should be meted out against a criminal. Some of these punishments may not necessarily bring about the greatest happiness, rather reduce the happiness that people have in the society. Imprisoning the family’s breadwinner on grounds that they have assaulted one of the family members, for instance, might be legally right because they are being punished for the offences they committed (assault, for example). However, measuring the impact this has to the greatest happiness in the society may bring about different results (Bentham, 1983). The family could end up being exposed to more unhappiness because the breadwinner is locked in prison. The utilitarian approach to punishment, in this case, will not have been explained. That is why proponents of utilitarianism have a second theory in furtherance of criminal punishments.
The Kantian approach and justification for criminal punishment
The Kantian theory supports criminal punishments, but not on the basis that such punishments bring greatest happiness to people. Whereas utilitarianism is based on maximization of utility of the people, the Kantian approach is largely based on the end of things. Immanuel Kant argued that humanity should never be treated as a mere a means, but as the end in itself. This approach’s justification for criminal punishment therefore is based on using such a system as the end of things. In determining the correctness or wrongness of the actions of a person, the two theories differ greatly. Utilitarianism argues that the consequences of one’s actions should be taken into account (Cummiskey, 2006). Kantianism, on the other hand, argues that such correctness or wrongness should be based on the intention that one has. In emphasizing the dignity of humans, Kant argues that human life is only valuable insofar as it can be borne by humans. The rationality of humans gives them the ability to make rational decisions. Because of this, Kant argues, one’s actions should not be judged according to the happiness they bring to other people. Simply, Kant argues that the reason of partaking a certain action should not be based on the impact that such an action has on the happiness of other people. This is the major conflict between the two.
Believers of the Kantian approach argue against the utilitarian approach of interpreting things. Specifically, the criticism is based on the notion that utilitarianism makes human beings robots. One is forced to sacrifice their own happiness so as to increase the happiness of others. Whereas a utilitarian would easily justify the killing of an innocent person provided the results are an increase in the happiness of people, a Kantian does not share similar sentiments because it would mean sacrificing one’s happiness to make other people happy (Cummiskey, 2006). Taking this approach is tricky because it will lead to the loss of human dignity. The essence of living will be reduced to making other people happy.
Kantian Justifications for criminal punishment
Kant’s main justification for criminal punishments is based on the argument that humans should be given what they deserve. This approach is more similar to the ‘tit for tat’ approach. If a person engages in a crime, then there is no offence, or it is not wrong if they are subjected to similar acts. A keen analysis of this reveals that the justification for criminal punishments shifts from bringing the greatest happiness to people, to giving people what they deserve. The Kantian argument opposes the move to punish people in order to make other happy.
It would be prudent to understand the reservations the Kantian approach has towards the utilitarianism approach towards punishments. This is discussed as follows.
On punishments to prevent further crimes
Bentham’s approach stipulates that when offenders are punished in the society, criminal activities will likely reduce. The Kantian approach does not agree with this. A Kantian will see this as a means of inflicting pain to the offender with the aim of pleasing the other parties. The Kantian approach argues that if such punishment is geared towards making other people happy, then it does not take into consideration the impact it will have on the offender. The death penalty is the best example in this, where the offender is sacrificed in order to achieve the greatest happiness among people (Cummiskey, 2006). Sacrificing of humans is tantamount to losing their dignity, which the Kantian approach is against. The only justification the Kantian approach has on capital penalty as means of criminal punishment is that by committing the offense that warrants such a grave action, the offender appreciates and justifies that there is no harm if such a grave act is committed to them. The two theories conflict on this aspect.
The Kantian approach and justification for punishment
The Kantian approach towards criminal punishment is based on principles that are completely different to those advocated by utilitarianism. These principles are twofold: First, that people should be punished for breaking the existing norms and laws, second, that the element of proportionality ought to be employed. The punishment that one receives ought to be proportional to the offence they commit. This is very different from the approach employed by utilitarianism, the aim of which is to achieve the greatest happiness.
There is no doubt that the two theories are parallel in addressing this similar issue. The Kantian approach emphasizes punishment to be mainly because a person broke existing rules, not because such punishment will increase happiness among people. In addition, whereas Kant argues in favor of the concept of proportionality, utilitarianism argues that proportionality should never form the basis for criminal prosecutions. Utilitarianism fully relies on the ability of the punishment to increase happiness, as opposed to how proportionate it is to the offence committed. One would thereby question the utilitarian approach for insisting on a person’s actions to be aligned towards making other people happy. A criminal may be severely punished for a minor offence with the aim of making people happy. Although various jurisdictions have different rules and regulations, the principle of proportionality is always emphasized. The offence a person commits determines or justifies the punishment they are to get. This inconsistency of the utilitarian justification of punishment with the laws in various legal systems has seen it heavily criticized as being far from the reality on the ground.
Proponents of the Kantian theory argue that if prescribed well, they do not have any reservations towards the death penalty as a means of punishment, provided the intention is not to make other people happy (Cummiskey, 2006). According to Kant, punishments entail violating the categorical imperative. It is because of this that punishing someone should be seen as a measure of violating their autonomy. By enforcing this sentence, the autonomy of an individual will be ended.
Kant introduces the concept of maxims in order to justify death penalties. Any crime can be associated with certain maxims (such as theft, assault and murder). A person committing a crime, Kant argues, is well aware that whatever actions they are promoting are against the law and prohibited as a result (Langton, 2001). Ignoring this and going further to engage in such offences is tantamount to endorsing them, thereby justifying that it will be right if they were subjected to such treatment. By harming another person, for instance, the offender justifies the act of harming, and that it would be alright if they were harmed in return. This implies situation where people are the architects of their own destiny. It is important to note how this justifies the doctrine of proportionality when prescribing a valid punishment that should be offered.
The Kantian theory encourages that people be treated as the ends, not as mere means (Cummiskey, 2006). If this element is taken into account, then it seems that criminal punishments are treated as respecting the ends of the criminals. Simply put, they get to be treated in a manner consistent with what they advocate for. A person who kills another person justifies that killing is not necessarily wrong if done to them. If such a criminal is subjected to the death penalty, then it is fully justified because they embrace the act of killing. It would seem that criminal punishments guided by this approach are not as a result of seeking to promote the greatest happiness of the people involved. The death penalty therefore acts as the means towards sharing the criminal’s ends.
There is no doubt that the Kantian justification for criminal punishment differs from the utilitarian justification. Utilitarianism justifies criminal punishments on the perspective that it contributes to the levels of general happiness in the society. Whether by imprisoning the offenders, imposing fear, death penalties or any other mechanism, utilitarianism stipulates that the greatest happiness in the society is achieved. Various jurisdictions have embraced this argument The US, for instance, promotes criminal punishments as a deterrence mechanisms towards achieving calmness in the society. The Kantian justification, however, has not been widely embraced. Most jurisdictions punish criminals to ensure that further crimes are discouraged. Nevertheless, the two theories differ.
Bentham, J. (1983). Article on Utilitarianism. The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: Deontology together with A Table of the Springs of Action and Article on Utilitarianism, 283-284. doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00077237
Cummiskey, D. (2006). Kantian Consequentialism. doi:10.1093/0195094530.001.0001
Langton, R. (2001). Three Kantian Theses. Kantian Humility, 15-47. doi:10.1093/0199243174.003.0003
Lyons, D. (2002). Bentham, Utilitarianism, and Distribution. UTI, 4(02), 323. doi:10.1017/s095382080000457x