Lex Talionis

Crime is an inevitable part of our world. No matter how much freedom and plenty are available inside the fence, some people will inevitably climb that fence, either due to boredom, curiosity, selfishness or mental impairment. Though we may be able to reduce crime through social programs and education, the question remains: what do we do with those who break the law?

Throughout history this question has been answered in many different ways, including fines, hard labor, torture, mutilation, exile, execution and incarceration. Imprisoning convicts has become the established method of administering punishment in the developed world, where physical discipline is considered barbaric. Of course, it is likely that a society which used beatings and public shaming to punish its criminals might consider the idea of removing people from their belongings, friends and family for decades to be much more brutal.

Incarceration is a luxury that many societies have not been able to afford, and many questions have been raised about the how correctional the facilities actually are. British Politician Douglas Hurd, regarding the effectiveness of incarceration, stated that, “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.”

Each society has its own view of law and criminal justice which defines what behavior is considered criminal, which crimes are, in general, grievous and the aim of punitive action. No matter what the method of punishment, the intent behind criminal justice is to satisfy one or more of four major objectives:

  1. Retribution: To exact punishment on the person who committed the crime.
  2. Deterrent:  To set an example to the rest of society in the hopes of discouraging others from similar activity.
  3. Protection: To keep the citizens safe from criminals.
  4. Correction: To ensure that criminals do not continue to offend.

Different methods of punishment accomplish these four objectives in different ways, as illustrated by this chart:

Objective Punishment
Pain Mutilation Fines Exile Incarceration Execution
 Retribution Strong Strong Strong Strong Strong Unknown
 Deterrent Fair Strong Fair Strong Fair Strong
 Protection Weak Strong Weak Strong Strong Very Strong
 Correction Weak Strong Weak Weak Fair Very Weak

Obviously the level to which each type of punishment achieves its aim depends on implementation. Incarceration, for example, provides a great opportunity for corrective programs as well as negative influence from fellow criminals, while mutilation, which may prevent future crime, can render recipients permanently debilitated. The method of punishment which consistently generates the most controversy is execution.

The death penalty holds the most absolute consequences of any punishment, which is what makes it so attractive to its supporters and so unbearable to its detractors. Although execution grants permanent protection from further crime, critics argue that because death is irreversible we cannot offer compensation to the wrongfully convicted. This argument is based on several unprovable presumptions. First, that every wrongfully convicted individual will be exonerated, second, that those who are exonerated are, in fact, innocent and finally, that we can adequately compensate for incarceration. It’s true that we cannot revive the dead, but neither can we travel back in time to restore lost years to these whose lives we have ruined.

There is much debate over whether increased punishment leads to increased deterrence. As we have already discussed, there is at least a meaningful relationship between punishment and deterrence, which means that the death penalty would offer the greatest deterrence of any form of punishment. So capital punishment offers impenetrable protection, tenacious deterrence and non-existent correction, but how does it fair at dispensing retribution? Death penalty supporters often tout its retributive power, but we can’t actually be certain how effective it is.

By incarcerating an individual we can control almost all aspects of their lives, but when we kill someone we relinquish control of their fate to the icy coils of death. Sure, there’s the fear and mental anguish endured by those poor souls on death row, but what happens after they die and how can we be sure that it’s bad?

There are many theories and beliefs about what awaits us beyond the grave, including heaven, hell, Blisstonia, non-existence, parallel realities and reincarnation, but ultimately we don’t know what exactly happens in the afterlife because scientists stubbornly refuse to die and study it.

If the criminal were to go to heaven or a parallel world after death, then there wouldn’t be much of a punishment. Non-existence seems frightening, but we all had no problem not existing before we were born, so it can’t be that bad. If we only had some evidence that there was, in fact, eternal torture awaiting the victim, then capital punishment might be viable. But as it stands, there’s a chance that they could end up in paradise, and death shall have no dominion.

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