Punishment / Consequences

Someone wrote that they'd been talking with a friend about punishment of criminals. The scope of the discussion was not defined, but is assumed to be limited to drunk drivers.

The question that came up was this: should the family of someone who perpetrates such a crime be punished for that crime? In other words, should a family be deprived of its principal wage earner, the wife of her husband, the kids of their father, simply because this unfortunate person was drunk behind the wheel of an automobile and happened to kill someone.

I assume the underlying argument is that the family did not participate in the decisions, they did nothing wrong, and therefore it's questionable about whether or not they should be 'punished'.

Granting the questioner the benefit of the doubt - that is, assuming it was a serious question asked by some well-meaning person - we'd have to look at a couple of basic concepts. I would suggest that the question can be broken down into the following ideas:

  1. is the family being punished in this case?
  2. who is doing the punishing?

To discuss the first item, I do not see how the word punished applies in this case. Certainly, people will be inconvenienced by removing the perpetrator from society. In fact, there are probably many people who will be inconvenienced: the perpetrator's employer, friends, parents, church community, school friends, members of the community service organizations he belongs to, and his immediate family will be inconvenienced and miss him.

Also inconvenienced will be the grocery and liquor stores from which he buys his booze, any establishments he frequents (drunk or sober), gas stations from which he buys the gas he puts into his car/truck while he drives around drunk, the store that sells replacement tires and auto parts, etc. etc.

There will be many, many repurcussions from the removal of such a person from their environment. But, are repurcussions punishment? No.

Every action has consequences. Putting him back into his environment will benefit these previously mentioned people and establishments. So, then, if we want to argue that removal is punishment, then not removing him from circulation is rewarding these people for his action. If we are not comfortable calling it a 'reward' to leave the perpetrator in circulation, then we should not be comfortable calling it 'punishment' (in terms of people other than himself) to remove him from circulation.

For sake of argument, however, we can grant the first premise and move on to the second. The question here is "who is doing the punishing?"

There are some fancy theological arguments about the nature of sin and punishment that help me out here. There was a period (and indeed some people still believe this today) in which punishment was seen as the direct action of God in meting out penalty for some transgression or other (commonly called sin).

This raised all kinds of questions about the nature of God, the balance between justice and mercy, and other quetsions that theologians help us make sense of. One of the answers which has made sense to me (if you really crave the reference, email me and I'll try and dig it up) is that the punishment is the natural outcome of the sin, not a punishment God lays on top of it.

For instance, if any of us drank poison, it would be a stretch to say "God punished that person for drinking the poison by killing them." More likely, we would understand that death is the natural outcome of drinking certain substances.

Given this frame of reference (which is little more than saying "actions have consequence"), the answer to our question is simple. If the family of a perpetrator is being punished, it is not being punished by the court, but the prosecutor's office, by the victim's family, or by any other such secondary cause. The punishment was willingly picked up by the perpetrator and laid on their family.

Let me repeat this to be perfectly clear: any punishment, inconvenience, pain, anger, frustration, etc. felt by the family of a perpetrator is imposed on that family by the perpetrator themselves.

It's a very simple formula. If I know that feeding my family moldy food will make them all sick, it isn't the company that made the food, or God, or the Department of Health or anyone else who made my family sick, it's me.

If I load my family into the car and drive them off the edge of a cliff, it isn't the Law of Gravity that's to blame, or the Road Commission, or the car manufacturer, or the guy who put up the road signs, it's me.

If I know that the result of quitting my job is that I'm going to be broke and thrown out of my house, furniture and car repossessed, and be begging for food, then it's completely senseless to say that "punishment" is being handed out by the landlord who kicks me out or the finance company that repossesses my car. It is not the grocery store that is "punishing" me by not giving me food. All of those outcomes were freely chosen by me when I quit my job.

Continuing with this line of logic, if I know the consequences of killing someone while I drive drunk are that I will be away from my family for twenty or thirty years, and then all of a sudden, I am taken away, it is not the court or the prosecutor or MADD or the victim's families or anyone else who has taken me away and "punished" my family, it is me.

A simpler way to coming at this (Jean's direct route) is to simply say: actions have consequences. You choose an action, you accept the consequences. Is this really so difficult a concept for people to understand? Our eight year old understood it.

See associated rant.