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Vivid, often vicious, emotional images come to when when one contemplates responding wrongdoing. One imagines facing a captured killer eye-to-eye. He's no longer free. You've got him. What would you feel? How would you respond? More importantly, what should you do?
Perhaps it's the emotional qualities of these responses that have kept us from facing the problem of punishment squarely. Stories of kidnappings, rapes and killings get us angry or make us feel scared, but, if we're remotely thoughtful, we don't just respond. We look for a justification. In a book about punishment, we expect to find discussion of how to balance justice, security, rehabilitation, and reprobation. We don't expect the three stooges, but Boonin gives us both.
Boonin's book is a remarkably clear, critical introduction to the problems faced by justifications for punishment. He introduces his thesis early and proceeds methodically. The attempts at justification fail. We should abandon punishment and find another response to wrongdoing.
The initial chapter begins, in traditional philosophical style, with definitions of the key terms. Boonin offers a weaker and a stronger definition of punishment. He considers different clauses and argues for their inclusion or exclusion. The resulting definition, that punishment is authorized reprobative retributive intentional harm (see 23-24 for a discussion of each part), lets his readers know exactly what a justification for punishment must show. The problem of punishment is straightforward. Punishment requires drawing a line between one group of people and another, and then intentionally harming the first group. A justification fails if it can't draw the line correctly between the two groups of people or if it can't justify intentionally harming the first group.
Boonin's proposes two tests to determine whether a justification for punishment is successful. The foundational test examines whether the foundational principle is plausible. Examine what the principle requires in other situations and reject the principle if it offers counter-intuitive results. The entailment test won't rely so heavily on intuitions. This test "asks whether or not any given foundational principle or set of principles would, if it were true, establish that punishment is morally permissible" (35). When applying this test, we ask whether it tracks the distinction between offenders and non-offenders, whether it can justify intentional harm (and not something else), whether in includes appropriate reprobation, and so on. If the justification can't support taking actions that satisfy all of the parts of the definition, then it fails.
With these two tests in hand, Boonin sets off to prove his thesis. He offers no overarching argument to demonstrate that no justification of punishment is possible. Instead, he employs the typical taxonomy to group arguments into consequentialist, retributive, other and hybrid, and then sets out to examine them one by one.
Despite this detailed-oriented approach, Boonin moves fairly quickly. Each position is given an introduction so that an attentive but otherwise uninitiated reader can understand its main claims. Occasionally, a point or two will receive a prolonged discussion, but usually Boonin introduces the argument quickly and moves on to the objections. He raises objections in a very systematic fashion, applying versions--often multiple versions--of both the entailment test and the foundational test to the justification. One objection to an argument is rarely enough. After refuting an argument for a particular position, Boonin often raises the argument again in a quest to show that, even if his previous argument fails, there's another fatal objection to consider.
To the philosophically uninitiated, this style can be tedious, though Boonin handles this problem fairly well. Since he raises his objections in a systematic fashion, he's able to move through them fast enough that no single objection takes too long. He moves on to a new objection or a new argument and keeps the reader's attention.
For the more philosophically-oriented, referencing his arguments is easy. The structure is clear. The nature of the objection is obvious and graspable in a small chunk. This analytic simplicity leaves me a little uneasy at times. If the ground is well-worn or the argument under consideration is isolated itself, his treatment is convincing, but for more systematic works, the reader is left to place the objection within the context of the larger work on his or her own. This feature is necessary, otherwise the book couldn't function as a critical reader for a general audience, though it does leave me eager to hear the responses of those criticized.
Things do get more complex towards the end. Chapter four, titled "Other Solutions," is as eclectic as you might imagine. Hybrid theories make the situation even more complicated, but, after Boonin's arguments against the consequentialist, retributivist, and other positions, hybrid theories seem quite promising. Boonin's argument here is necessarily complex. He can't examine each combination of each variety one-by-one. Instead, his strategy is to show why a combination of these theories is no more likely to succeed than the original. The strategy is abstract, focusing on features of theories rather than any proposed hybrid, so this part of Boonin's argument is the most difficult to understand.
For the general audience, the last chapter will be the least satisfying. Boonin doesn't propose any theory of how we ought to respond to wrongdoing. His final chapter initially seems like it's going to fill this role. Boonin talks at length about restitution. His goal in this chapter, however, is to reject a particular kind of argument for punishment: the appeal to necessity. The proposal that wrongdoers ought to pay restitution to their victims in one way or another is interesting. As Boonin makes clear, it incorporates many of the concerns that motivate people to advocate punishment and so helps clarify what is distinctive about punishment. If victims are restored, both materially and psychically, and if the offender is the one to do the restoration, then what remains to be done? Perhaps most interestingly, restitution never requires that we intend to harm the offender. Though restitution is likely to make the offender worse off, this effect is really a side-effect of restoring the victim. Boonin, though, doesn't defend restitution. At several points, he concedes serious objections to restitution and contents himself with noting that any attempt to justify punishment will encounter the same problem. This fits with his stated aim. All he proposes to do is show that punishment isn't necessary, but this leaves us in need of a justified response to wrongdoing. As long as there's still the need for a response to wrongdoing and all responses have their problems, it will be hard to take punishment out of the running.
In the end, this book is a call for us to think carefully about how we respond to wrongdoing. Beyond his argument, Boonin makes his point with his examples. When he needs an example of a criminal or a victim, he draws on the three stooges. Larry hits Moe. Moe retaliates. Curly and even Shemp get into the act. Rather than provoke us to anger or lead us down well-worn paths to punishment, Boonin's choice here lightens the tone of the book and reminds us how silly some responses to wrongdoing can be. Though we leave The Problem of Punishment with no guidance on how to respond to wrongdoing, we leave with a clearer idea of what the problems with punishment are and with an urge to find other ways to respond.
© 2009 Chris Ciocchetti
Chris Ciocchetti, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Centenary College of Louisiana