The Origins of the Concept of Punishment

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The concept of punishment has been around for as long as humans have roamed the earth. In the renaissance era, those guilty of public intoxication would be put in the pillory and subjected to public humiliation and abuse. Before that, in ancient Greece, one could be stoned or exiled as punishment for theft. The act of punishing those perceived as deviant seems to be an innate part of human relationships. Over many centuries, punishment has become so normalized in society that it is uncomfortable to question roots of these practices and the reasoning behind them. Punishment in its many forms is constantly evolving, but its core reasoning has remained more or less the same. Similar to that of early civilizations, current punishment is used to show what is accepted, and not accepted, by society and to deter delinquency.

When asking why we punish, one must first ask, “what is punishment?” In a broad sense of the word, punishment is “the practice of imposing something unpleasant on a person as a response to some unwanted or immoral behavior or disobedience that they have displayed” (Punishment). There are many kinds of punishment that range from trivial, like taking a toy from a misbehaving child, to extreme, such as capital punishment. Punishment in its many forms has evolved over time, but the reasoning for it has remain fairly consistent. In The Roots of Evil: A Social History of Crime and Punishment, Christopher Hibbert explores the roots and reasoning for punishment is explored as writes about crimes and their corresponding punishments inflicted in ancient European civilizations. Hibbert references an analysis by Tacitus, a Roman historian, of early German punishment. Tacitus describes Germans, a mere sixty years after the death of Christ, as “consider[ing] only treachery, desertion, cowardice, and sexual perversion to be crimes serious enough to be punished by death” (The Growth of Punishment 3). All other crimes, he reports, were resolved with a punishment that required monetary compensation. Hibbert and Tacitus’ assessment of ancient punishment are informative while giving an insightful lens into the heinous, sadistic punishments of our ancestors.

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The function of said punishments, death and monetary compensation, were to maintain a cohesive community. These early punishments were enforced to show which behaviors were accepted by society. In early England, behaviors such as supporting and obeying the Church were accepted. Whereas, behaviors that went against the Church, such as committing the sin of adultery, were punishable by death or mutilation. Punishments were imposed those in power in the Church and government in an effort to control the population and perpetuate an idealistic society that was rid of crime and immorality. Higher powers punished those who did not adhere to a set of norms that promoted a cohesive society. Rules were aggressively enforced, but people learned which behaviors were expected of them and which were forbidden.

To put it simply, punishment is a means of control. We punish those in society who act in a way that goes against the norm in an effort to control behavior. In theory, a higher power, such as law enforcement, publicly punishing criminals should deter crimes. In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he discusses punishment’s effect on humans and their behavior. In the book’s chapter, “The Gentle Way in Punishment,” Foucault refers to the idea of homo oeconomicus. The primary idea of homo oeconomicus is that people make rational choices, or people make choices based on an analysis of cost and benefit. If a crime has a certain punishment, and this punishment is greater than the benefit of the crime, theoretically people will not commit the crime because it is not worth it (Foucault). In the case of murdering someone for their property, the potential murderer would theoretically not commit the crime. The murderer knows that they could be sentenced to capital punishment and the value of the punishment, losing their life, outweighs the value of the stolen property. It follows that the murderer would decide not to proceed with the murder showing that the punishment deterred a potential crime.

The idea of homo oeconomicus and punishment deterring crime is a timeless idea, but it is flawed. Even with the knowledge of prospective punishment, some criminals still commit crimes. This is seen in Werner Herzog’s documentary, “Into the Abyss. ” The documentary follows the crime and execution of Michael Perry, who committed a triple homicide in order to steal a car. Perry and his accomplice Jason Berkett were aware of the law and the possible punishments, yet this did not deter their behavior. Perry was later found guilty and sentenced to capital punishment (Herzog). The value of a life, even that of a murder, outweighs the cost of a car. Cases like this go to show that punishment has more than one function. In this case, the function of punishment was not to deter a crime that had already been committed, but to show society that this behavior was not permitted. Herzog makes an interesting choice with this documentary but putting the focus on Michael Perry who does not appear to be fully aware of the magnitude of his crime. Perry is neither remorseful or truthful regarding his crime, so it begs the question of whether he was fully aware of his decisions and their repercussions. Despite this artistic choice, the publicized proceedings in this case and the documentary are used as examples of how law enforcement tries to enforce laws to maintain an idealistic society.

The idea of punishment and the ways in which it is enforced has greatly evolved over time. There have been movements to make punishment more humane and unbiased. Punishment appears to be an innate part of human relationships as its practices have transcended time. Despite changes in the physical practice of punishment, its reasoning has remained consistent. Just as they did in early English culture and beyond, society uses punishment to show what is accepted or not accepted and to deter crime. These two functions of punishment work together to control community and enforce a cohesive society. Showing the population which behaviors are acceptable and which are not permitted helps to direct behavior in a way that promotes an idealistic world that is rid of petty and heinous crimes. Similarly, the concept of homo oeconomicus is present to deter crime as people think about the value of their actions. Punishment is a primary foundation in society that influences human and societal relationships. Humans punish one another to with the purpose of claiming control over each other and the situation.

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