On punishment

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A reflection on Plato’s Laws

Throughout history, those who have power have employed it upon the bodies of those they rule – to curtail, to quash and to conform. For the vast majority of this time, the use of violence has primarily sought to maintain or overthrow the status quo of power, but also had value under the pretence of curbing the worst facets of humanity through supremacy. With this in mind, I will examine the utility of punishment in achieving a good society, first by looking at its definition and then examining the potential pitfalls in its employment.

Punishment is only something that can be applied by an external power upon a subordinate body, an act which strips us of our freedom, subjects us to pain or potentially ends our life. It intends to attempt to dissuade us from a certain course of action, or to serve as a warning to others who would hope to follow in our footsteps. Once again, by itself and uninformed, punishment appears to be value-neutral – neither positive or negative but only a tool in the repertoire of the powers that be. The first question that then arises from this predicament is – what can punishment achieve?

I posit that punishment, as a constraining action, can never achieve improvement in a person’s life, but only reduce the negative traits in an individual or society at large (see on the Good). Virtue can only be good quality if you make the action voluntarily, an individual who conducts a good act by compulsion is a best a slave and at worst and automaton – mentally incapable of formulating outside the rigid paradigm forced upon them. However, beyond this limitation, punishment can have a yet more sinister character.

When an unjust hand guides punishment, it no longer aims to the constraint of evil natures in humanity but acts as a tool of subjugation. If utilised incorrectly punishment becomes the act of oppression, and facing an unjust society the individual and group face the inevitable decision – submission or rebellion (see on Obedience). But even when aiming at the good punishment can act contrary to the interests of growth and development.

If a culture assumes that it has reached the pinnacle of development – attained the highest possible good – then that society may be tempted to utilise punishment as a means of dissuading individuals from questioning the status quo. A society following this line of reasoning lapses into self-satisfaction, intellectual suicide, which calcifies the minds and hearts of the people (see on Smashing Idols). So if this is the case how do we know when and when not to constrain our punishment?

Facing an uncertain world with imperfect faculties, I would posit that the only hope that humans have is free and rational inquiry. The remedy for stagnation and ignorance is debate, and no-one – no matter how wrong they appear to be – should be muzzled for the sake of society. However, this does not mean that they should be unchallenged, it is the responsibility of every citizen to educate themselves on the matters important to their state – whether the current flavour or eternal conversations on truth, happiness and the good (see on Debate). With this in mind, what role can punishment play? Discussion cannot occur in an environment of physical violence, and the threat of destruction by another leads to the self-censorship that is like arsenic in the veins of a free society. As such, the employment of force to quash those who would domineer the narrative of culture through usurping the monopoly of force in a state is its primary utility of punishment.

Original text

Plato’s Laws


Hippolyte Delaroche, The Execution Of Lady Jane Grey,  1833

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