Morality and Punishment

The idea of morality is woven throughout every aspect of human life, yet it remains a word so ambiguous insofar that most laypersons would struggle to define it. Although morality and a communal desire to punish offenders of morality are intrinsic to human nature, there seems to be a grey area between the definition of morality itself and what justifies punishment. To explore the relationship between morality and punishment a clear definition of both must first be established.

Morality, according to most, is relevant. Some definitions will claim there is a universal morality whereas others will discuss the possibility of infinite interpretations. However, upon removing any influences of philosophy, religion or ideology, the base concept of morality refers to principles that distinguish right and wrong behavior. Any further elaboration tends to result in a subjective viewpoint influenced by external factors. Rather, the next logical step would be to define what distinguishes right from wrong. The traditional utilitarian morality, the morality most intuitive to humans, describes itself as alleviating suffering and promoting happiness and well-being in conscious entities. This seems to encompass the concept of morality as it addresses, arguably, what we care about most: happiness and suffering.

Upon establishing an understanding of morality, how is punishment justified if it leads to the suffering of the punished? Punishment is viewed as an inherent evolutionary trait that promotes survival, displayed in a large portion of species. Should another animal, whether within or outside the pack, attempt to steal food or harm one's offspring, punishment is the proper cause of action. Punishment, in this sense, as violence, discourages further action and sets an example for witnesses. Where humans differ from other species is the depth, deliberation, and variety given to punishments. Yet, the overall goal remains the same: to deter the perpetrator and others from repeating the offending actions. The goal of punishing is not to produce positive behavior but rather to reveal negative behavior.

Punishment is not only natural but necessary to survival. The problem lies in the justification of punishment which reverts back to the definition of morality. The ambiguous nature of morality and pollution of external factors into its core concept allows it to be molded to justify punishment for actions that promote suffering, in stark contrast to the utilitarian view. Morality is relative. Until science can lay a universal theory that defines what morality is using a scientific method, it will to remain relevant and in doing so, justify the abuse of punishment.