A Philosophical Approach to Crime and Punishment

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There are many ways to reason through the correct course of action involving human punishment for crime. Crime is considered negative in society, a breach in the way one should behave. The problems arise when the time comes to punish a criminal. There are disagreements over the severity of a crime, the mentality of the criminal, and the correct penalty that should result from that crime among other things. Kant and the Utilitarian perspective on crime and punishment do not coincide. Both philosophical viewpoints seem convincing in their own right, but not without flaws. One is simply the better way to reason through the issue at hand as it relates to society as a whole.

Immanuel Kant has a few fundamental ideas about how society should think and behave. Among his ideas is the way to deal with crime and approach punishment. Kant believed in the idea of Retributivism. He felt that one should pay for the crime that they committed in a way equivalent to the crime. Since he so heavily valued the concept of human dignity, he believed that crime was either a personal or public offense to the laws of society. Personal being a crime committed against one individual, public being a crime against society as a whole. The punishment inflicted depends on the crime, but Kant was a proponent of the death penalty in crimes of murder. In order to grasp Kant’s idea about crime and punishment it is important to understand his philosophical views in general.

Kant has three main guidelines in which he forms his ideas. Firstly, humans are to act in such a way that would will their action to be a universal law of nature. In other words, treat others as one would like to be treated in return. Second, act in such a way that the action treats humanity as an end in itself and never a means. Humans should be seen as goals, not ways to fulfill those goals. Lastly, act as though one is legislating by their actions within a kingdom of ends. This follows from the preceding two guidelines. Kant reasons his perspective on crime and punishment through these guidelines. In any situation, one must take much in to consideration before deciding upon the right course of action. When a crime is committed, one must decide upon the ideal form of punishment for that situation. It is important to take the victim and criminal in to mind, as well as their motivations for action.

Quite to the contrary, one might be inclined to think that Kant would be against the death penalty, since he values human dignity so highly. His value for human dignity is actually part of the reasoning as to why he favors capital punishment. When a crime is committed, the criminal’s maxim is one that they would no doubt will for society. If they kill someone, then they would have the maxim “It is okay to kill.” Since the criminal believes that murder is okay, to kill them in return would be respecting their thought process. To kill the criminal would have to be seen as respectful and in such, a praise of human dignity.

The Utilitarian perspective on crime and punishment strongly differs from Kant’s. The Utilitarian is primarily concerned with the greatest increase in happiness in any and all situations. It is all about a weighing of the costs, whichever course of action brings the least amount of pain and the greatest amount of pleasure is the best course of action. Take for example the situation of a serial killer who is being put up for the death penalty. If it is determined that the greatest amount of good will come from putting this serial killer to death, then they should be put to death. If on the other hand, the greater good comes from keeping this serial killer alive and in jail for the remainder of their life, then they should not be put to death.

Punishing criminals has been usually thought to prevent crime for the most part. If criminals know that there is going to be a punishment, and what that punishment is, they are often dissuaded from committing the crime in the...
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