March 31, 2013 · 1:00 PM
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Philosophy of Punishment and the Social Contract
Plato discusses punishment in a number of dialogues; however, the fullest Platonic discussion of punishment is, not surprisingly, in his most practically political work, the Laws. Plato‟s views about criminal punishment are best characterized as reformist. This emerges from a combination of the famous Socratic intellectualist moral thesis that virtue is knowledge, and the equally well-known Socratic thesis that no one does injustice willingly. Indeed, these principles force one to wonder whether it makes sense to speak of punishment at all. And yet when one studies the Laws, the main action of which is the proposal of a legal code for a new colony, one is struck by the coexistence of the paradoxical Socratic theses and proposed punishments that are often retributive in nature.
The laws of the Magnesian city aim at a complex of goals that attempt to manage tensions inherent in humanity itself between man's rational and political nature: some aim at the moral and intellectual perfection of individuals, while others aim at civic goods that are sometimes at odds with the highest human possibilities. Plato's reformism is a function of his rationalism; his admission (reluctant, but clear) of retribution is a recognition of the city‟s necessary commitment to its own preservation even if this means moderating its highest ends.
A modern philosopher, John Rawls, draws a crucial distinction between (1) justifying a practice or institution and (2) justifying particular actions that fall under it. He then applies this distinction to the question of how we justify punishment. He argues that utilitarian considerations justify the institution of punishment as a whole, while retributivist concerns dictate and justify the decision to punishment particular crimes in particular ways. He then shows why utilitarian justifications of punishment as a institution are not open to the kinds of abuses some critics of utilitarianism have alleged.
1.In what way does the distinction between justifying a practice and justifying particular actions falling under it provide the key to reconciling utilitarian and retributivist accounts of punishment?
2.Both retributivist and utilitarian approaches to punishment are often accused of opening the door to different kinds of abuses. What type of abuse is associated with each of these approaches?
Join Plato's Cave philosophers as we consider these questions and others in our discussion of punishment as a necessary part of the social contract.
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-Steve, Plato's Cave Organizer