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Would it be better to have set punishments for crimes (Ex. murder = 20 years imprisonment no matter the circumstances) or to have the punishments be defined with the individual that caused it? Would it also be better for punishments to be more "aggressive" than needed (Ex. littering = 5 years imprisonment)

Not better in any sense I can think of. On the "set punishment" question: I'm struggling to think what the point of inflexible sentencing laws would be given that the circumstances can vary in ways that seem clearly to be relevant. On the second question: the way you phrase it seems to provide the answer. If a 5-year sentence for littering is more aggressive than needed, then it's more aggressive than needed . Of course, if we had really harsh penalties for minor offenses, very few people would commit them. But the ones who did would be punished much more severely than their transgressions would justify. That seems like a high cost. Also, the citizenry would live in fear---another high cost. Mistakes in the judicial process would lead to innocent people bearing burdens that would be unreasonable even if they were guilty, and there would be reason to fear that laws like this would be abused and used to target unpopular minorities; that already happens as things stand. It's hard to see how what...

Is the following behavior moral : 1. I was robbed when I was 14 and 15 on the streets. It was only a few dollars and they only involved verbal threats and no physical violence but it was somewhat traumatic. I didn't report to the police because for whatever reason I can't still understand. Probably there was (1) a certain mistrust of the police's ability to catch such criminals and (2) not wanting to bother with the hassle of dealing with police work -- for certainly parents would be involved in a teenager's case, and my parents were busy people -- for what was so little money, and (3) the minimization of the potential effects of such a traumatic emotional experience; I was brought up to act manly and powerful, and "telling" seemed like weakness(why I don't know). 2. 15 years has passed and I want to find them and make them pay for the emotional trauma that I had to suffer for a long time afterwards. I still lack basic trust between people and so forth. Is this moral? I.e. is the attempt at...

If I understand correctly, you're asking whether it would be acceptable to seek some sort of revenge now against someone who robbed you of a small sum 15 years ago. I don't know where you live, but in many jurisdictions the statute of limitations would have expired. (In New York, for example, the statute of limitations for robbery is five years.) That would mean that you have no legal recourse. Harming the robber or stealing from him would also not be acceptable. It would be a case of taking the law into your own hands and even if there are cases where that's acceptable, it's hard to see that this is one of them. Also: you say you want to find thief. But what are the chances of that happening? Would you even recognize him 15 years after the fact? And even if you think you would, this is the sort of thing people can easily get wrong. So you run the risk of wreaking vengeance on the wrong person. Moreover, you say that the trauma has lasted and left you with emotional scars. You say that an act of...

Recently, Indonesia executed several people, mostly foreigners, for drug trafficking. This has been justified on at least two grounds: 1) Countries have diffferent norms and political cultures, and it's (Western) arrogance to tell them their way of doing things is wrong. 2) The executed knew the risk they were taking and the consequences of breaking another nation's laws, therefore, they got what they deserved and have only themselves to blame. Any comments? Thanks.

Two comments. The first is that if you have a good reason to think something is wrong, the fact that it happened in another country or culture isn't a reason not to say so. I'm happy to put the shoe on the other foot. If there are practices in my country (the US) that someone from elsewhere has reason to think are wrong (and I'm sure there are), I wouldn't think it was arrogant to offer up the criticism. I agree that there are serious questions about the history of Western behavior toward other countries, but we can distinguish the issues at least conceptually. For example: I'm quite willing to say that it's wrong for a country to execute people for being homosexual, whether or not the West has things to answer for in how it has dealt with that country. There may be more or less arrogant ways of making the point, but that doesn't make the criticism illegitimate or inappropriate. The second point is that if it's wrong to execute people for drug trafficking, then the traffickers don't deserve to be...

Is rape always immoral? Could it be justified under jurisprudence as punishment for a crime or under environmental ethics to save the human race in the event of a near human extinction?

Someone might say that punishment should fit the crime and therefore that raping rapists is a just punishment. Someone might also say that torturing torturers is a just punishment. My reaction is that examples like this show the unacceptability of a strict "eye for an eye" notion of justice. Torturing someone as a form of punishment strikes me as depraved; so does raping a rapist. Torture and rape are crimes that show an utter and complete lack of respect for the victim's humanity. That's something that an acceptable judicial system should avoid, in my opinion. As for your hypothetical about rape in the case of near-extinction, I don't feel the force. Why is the continued existence of humanity so important that it would justify raping an unwilling woman and forcing her to carry a baby? Is the sort of "civilization" that would stoop to such things work preserving? What's so hot about humanity from the point of view of the cosmos? Are there any circumstances that would justify a different...

Do philosophers who believe in a naturalistic and deterministic world and assert a compatabilist theory of free will believe that people who do very wrong things should be punished as an expression of retribution or to make the person realize how bad they are? (Rather than the use of punishment as discouragement) I find it fascinating and deeply disturbing that philosophers would want to punish people who are perfectly innocent according to a incompatibilist ethical system.

On the substance of your question, it may well be that different philosophers will respond differently, though I'd guess that naturalist/determinist/compatibilist more often goes with a view of punishment as having broadly utilitarian goals rather than retributivist ones. But I was struck by your last sentence: you find it disturbing that compatibilists would be willing to punish people whom incompatibilists see as innocent. Isn't this really just a way of siding with the incompatibilists? Compatibilists argue at length that we can be morally responsible even if determinism is true. Indeed, some compatibilists have argued (Hobart is a famous example from many decades ago) that we can't be responsible unless determinism is true. If compatibilists can make their case, then their point of view is only superficially disturbing. The apparently disturbing character, they would argue, is an illusion borne of misunderstanding what's required for moral responsibility. The compatibilist, in other words, thinks...

I think killing in self-defence is perfectly acceptable yet I strongly oppose the death penalty. Is this consistent?

Yes. To say it's okay to kill in self-defense usually means that it's okay to kill in response to an immediate threat to one's life or safety. We could add various qualifications, but on anything like this understanding, capital punishment isn't self-defense. The person executed almost never poses an immediate threat to anyone's life or safety. Of course it's sometimes argued that capital punishment protects society in general from a more hypothetical threat of doubtful probability, but that's presumably not what you mean when you say you think killing in self-defense is acceptable. So there's a distinction and hence no problem of consistency.

Hello: Almost two years ago -in January 2009- I was supposed to marry my fiancé with whom I have had a five-year relationship. Three weeks before our wedding, I just called her and cancelled everything over the telephone. That was a very mean and coward thing to do. I inflicted a serious emotional harm on her (and on myself too). A couple of months after I did such an awful thing (I can’t find a better word for that kind of action) I called her to apologize for what I have done. I explained her that I committed such a grave error because I was terrified of getting married. I wanted her back, but she refused me. Since then I’ve tried to gain her love again, but she just do not care for me anymore. I accept that as a fair outcome for my reckless behavior. I just deserve to be refused by my ex fiancé. What I haven’t been able to do until now is to cope with my regrets and my endless sense of guilt. I just can’t believe that I did what I did. I feel awful and unworthy of anything. I don’t need a priest...

I hear two things in what you say. One is that, quite understandably, you want to deal with your sorrow. The other is that you want a "serious, fair and moral" way past your situation. But I'm not sure these amount to the same thing. When it comes to curing heartache, philosophers have no special expertise. A philosopher could offer you some obvious platitudes, including the suggestion that if you are really having trouble coping, there's no shame in seeking professional help, but a philosopher is not a doctor of the soul On the other part of your plea, there may be a bit that a philosopher could say. You've accepted — intellectually, at least — that your former fiancé has lost her regard for you and that this is something you brought on your self. She is entitled to get on with her life, and the right thing to do is to respect that. But you're also looking for some way to atone and make amends. Making amends may not be possible, because making amends isn't the sort of thing that can just...

The Times reports that Martin Tankleff was just granted a second trial after spending 17 years in prison for a crime that he very likely didn't commit. If he's found not guilty, or, more to the point, if he's in fact not guilty, why doesn't he have the right to commit 17 years' worth of crimes "free of charge"? OK, maybe not 17 full years' worth, but you'd admit, I hope, that at least some of the jurisprudence of punishment is based on retribution, so can you discuss the role of his time served in future punishment deliberations? For instance, say he happens to commit a crime later in life, not out of some sense of entitlement, but for any of the other "normal" reasons (like passion!): how relevant should his time served be?

My impulse is to say that we're mixing apples and eggnog. It's true that retribution is part of the way we thinkabout punishment. But however we understand retribution, it's hard tosee how the State's wrong against you would make it okay for you to rob me or beat me up. After all, even though I'm part of the body politic, qua private citizen, I don't represent the state. And in any case, robbery, embezzlement, assault and various sorts of mayhem are the kinds of things we should shy away from. Giving someone a free pass on future misdeeds because of past mistreatment by the State seems to miss that point. If Mr. Tankleff is indeed found not guilty, then it's not unreasonable to think that he should receive some sort of compensation. But 17 years (or even 17 days) of punishment-free crime doesn't seem like the right way to go. Things being what they are (no time machines, no guaranteed life-extending potions...) monetary compensation sounds like a much better idea, even though it...

In order for something to be a punishment, must there be an ending to it? Hell, many say, is a punishment. But isn't the purpose of a punishment to try to make somebody learn that what they did was wrong and make them a "better person"? Many believe in eternity in hell, but how can this be? What is the point of "punishing" somebody forever, if they will never be able to do good again? If they will never be faced with another opportunity to be a better person?

A good question! As it turns out, not everyone agrees that the purpose of punishment is to reform people. In fact, some philosophers (Kant is perhaps the foremost) held that the only justification for punishment is that the person deserves it, and if we punish for the sake of making someone better, we fail to show proper respect for them -- we manipulate them for our own ends. Setting the question of Hell aside for the moment, we can see that the argument you raise, if correct, would also count against capital punishment. But whatever one's views on the rightness of capital punishment, the widespread support it has in some places makes clear that many people see punishment as a matter of giving people what they deserve rather than reforming them. This idea, fleshed oout and elaborated, is often called the retributive theory of punishment, though it's important not to confuse retribution with revenge. Retributive theorists would maintain that the punishment must always be proportional to the...