Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Punishment as Condemnation

A recent discussion among a couple members of the studio audience touched briefly on the question of what it takes for something to count as punishment.

Specifically, it touched on the question of whether taxation can be properly classified as punishment.

The discussion merely grazed the surface of this question, then ricocheted off. However, I have heard the statement a number of times – particularly by libertarians (a tribe in which I was once a member).

Furthermore, this is a blog that suggests that the institution of morality is (or should be) the application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires. It would be useful to say a few things about what punishment is.

Punishment involves intentionally doing harm to somebody. In other words, the act of punishment seeks to create a state of affairs in which the desires of others (those who are being punished) are deliberately thwarted. The thwarting of the desires of others is not a side-effect of punishment, it is a part of the purpose of punishment.

Furthermore . . . and this is the part that those who misuse the concept of punishment often miss . . . punishment is a statement of condemnation. To punish somebody is to insult them, to put them down, to condemn them, to assert in clear language that the person being punished is somebody who deserves punishment.

On the question of whether taxation is punishment – taxation does not qualify.

First, it is not clear that the act of taxation is an act that aims to do harm to those who are taxed. Ultimately, taxation aims to provide people with benefits. It aims to provide them with goods and services – such as national defense, a police and court system, a fire department, an educated population, an infrastructure, medical care, retirement benefits, and the like, none of which count as deliberately causing harm to the individual taxed.

The benefits do not always match the costs. Some people obtain in terms of benefits more than they pay in terms of taxes, and some people pay more in terms of taxes than they get in terms of benefits. However, the aim of taxation is not to do harm.

More importantly, a tax form is not a statement of condemnation.

I just finished paying my taxes today. There is absolutely no sense (except in the minds of certain individuals) that the tax bill I received came with a statement of condemnation for the moral crime of earning a salary.

Meaning, by the way, is a matter of linguistic convention. We can assign the meaning of condemnation to just about anything. We can define it into a hand gesture, or into an act such as the act of hitting the poster of an individual with a shoe. It is quite possible that we can attach a statement of condemnation to the act of giving a person a bill. However, when we do this, we tend to call the demand for money a "fine", not a "tax".

In fact, the very quality that distinguishes a fine from a tax is the fact that the fine carries with it the meaning, "Your act is to be condemned, and you are to be condemned for being somebody who could perform an act like that."

Even penalties in a game carry a statement of condemnation. If a quarterback in a football game is sacked, the team may lose five yards. Yet, this is not considered a penalty. This is simply a loss.

However, when the referee moves the ball back five yards because a team member has been caught breaking the rules, a loss becomes a penalty. It contains within it a statement of condemnation. “The rules are to be followed, and those who do not follow the rules will be made to suffer for their transgression.

So, if somebody should use the term "punishment" in a context where the element of condemnation is missing, their statement is simply false.

As with any false statement, when a person makes a mistake such as this, we can then start to ask a different set of questions. “Of all the mistakes that one could make, why did you make this one?”

Sometimes – in morally culpable cases – we can find the reason in what the agent wanted to believe or wanted others to believe regardless of the truth of the matter. In these cases, we may discover that the person misusing the term is the one who deserves condemnation.

In other cases, a mistake is just a mistake.

3 comments:

SMcK said...

"The thwarting of the desires of others is not a side-effect of punishment, it is a part of the purpose of punishment."

Punishment is used in order to correct a given behavior, so desire-thwarting is more of a method than a purpose. I think if thwarting desires is the purpose of a given action, it qualifies as torture.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Capitalist Roader said...

Income tax does not correctly fall into the bracket of punishment. Other members of the 'audience' have reasonably argued that the rich should pay more based on the decreasing marginal utility of money;

Eneasz
"How about the diminishing marginal utility of the dollar? The 1-millionth dollar means a lot less to the rich than the 1-hundreth dollar means to the poor."

To say however

"On the question of whether taxation is punishment – taxation does not qualify."

Is a generalisation that needs more careful wording, when taking non-income tax into account. Pedantic - perhaps, but i still believe it is important. Excise tax may easily be seen as a punishment for consuming goods which do not fit in with the conventional morality or goals of society.

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Borrowed from wikipedia;

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excise

Adam Smith says, "The motive for the implementation of excise should be nothing more than to curb the pursuit of goods and services harmful to our health and morals." Samuel Johnson, meanwhile, is somewhat more harsh in his 1755 dictionary: "Excise - A hateful tax levied on commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."
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By a utilitarian defintion, what is excise tax on alcohol but punishment for consuming goods which are harmful to 'our health' or allegedly to our 'morals'?


Additionally

Sometimes – in morally culpable cases – we can find the reason in what the agent wanted to believe or wanted others to believe regardless of the truth of the matter. In these cases, we may discover that the person misusing the term is the one who deserves condemnation.

When the argument changes from CEO's culpability for the current recession and their high pay rates to 'tax rate increases for the wealthy'.... well it is easy to suggest that logic comes after that decision. When an argument is offered in that vein of thought, suggesting that the desire to increase the taxes for the rich is punitive, rather than simple utilitarianism is an easy jump for anyone to make, and not necessarily wrong. Any large scale action affecting millions should be thought through rationally (and may have been) and not simply a knee jerk reaction to current events. As you explain, higher tax rates for the wealthy are not punitive, unless they are motivated by the desire to impose them as condemnation measures upon members of the wealthy.