The urge to punish

A few days ago Ed Whitney made a comment on this site that I think deserves to be its own post:

“Voters should think twice before delivering great political power into the hands of men who show a strong urge to punish. Those who neglect this principle will not remain free or safe for long.”


Footnote Ed gives as the source Also Sprach Zarathustra II, 29, “On Tarantulas”:

Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had – power.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “The urge to punish”

  1. The difficulty is that the urge to punish is universal.

    Probably it has to be, because the first time one stays one's hand, the message is that one has no standards that one cares about enforcing. Thus punishment becomes the only mechanism by which the existence and imprtance of standards can be communicated.

    We got where we are by letting people off the hook. The rest is who is whose friend, etc. etc.

  2. The urge to punish may be universal (or not … is there evidence for your assertion?). Most urges are universal, I suppose, but the actions that express them vary in degree of severity — or generosity, as the case may be. Has punishment proven itself universally effective in either deterring or ending bad behavior? I would want to see some real data underlying THAT notion.

  3. Punishment definitely affects behavior – technically, by scientific definition it means that the behavior has reduced or stopped. But what we're really talking about is the application of aversive consequences after a behavior, and this definitely works.

    That said, it's far more complex, obviously. I'm reminded of a classroom of teenagers I once worked with at a continuation (at-risk) school. I asked them to raise their hands if they had been spanked as children – almost every single hand went up. These kids were horrendously behaved, and yet came from homes in which corporeal punishment was the norm. There is also evidence that this type of punishment teaches physical aggression through modeling. Punishment tends to be more effective short term, as the individual learns avoidance strategies. It also requires consistency – if punishment is delivered inconsistently, it weakens dramatically.

    Far better, is positive reinforcement: applying enjoyable consequences immediately following appropriate behaviors. This not only strengthens the behavior you want, but allows for targeting and shaping new behaviors that are more functional and will bring the individual into contact with natural contingencies. For example, punishing a child for not doing his homework doesn't specify what skill you want to increase. Better to reward specific study skills such as organization, following a schedule, attentiveness, self-regulation, etc.

    All of this gets quite complex, as there are specific factors unique to every context. But as a rule, positive reinforcement is far more productive. You can do both however: inappropriate behaviors can be punished while appropriate behaviors are rewarded. But too often the latter are forgotten (it's natural to notice poor behavior more than good).

    In my work with families the most difficult barrier to behavior change in children is often a culture of punitive discipline. There is a dynamic of anger, resentment and hostility. When delivered consistently and with love, this isn't too much of a problem. But more often than not the loving, compassionate side loses out to a constant refrain of disappointed criticism. My work is to support the parents in learning to deliver more positive reinforcement by focusing on the behaviors they want from their children.

    This of course applies not only to children but to everyone: spouses, friends, co-workers. Focus on the positive and reward want you want with smiles, compliments, etc. For the behaviors you don't want, give clear, immediate and strong feedback, but don't dwell on it. How we all respond to others has a huge impact on their behavior.

    I'm less comfortable extrapolating this to national politics and policy. But with specific context taken into account, the same principles will apply. Speeches I doubt have much behavioral impact. But policies and programs certainly do. Organizational behavioral management is a field in which policy-oriented topics are studied.

    To note: everything I have said is based in behavioral science, and as such assumes a deterministic view of human behavior, in which our behavior is learned based on our genetic predispositions interacting with the environment. Free will is irrelevant, and as such so is blame. What matters is the system over time.

  4. Punishment looks not just towards modifying behavior. It’s also about relieving—and, as often as not, indulging–the angry or indignant feelings of the punisher and of those who see themselves as allied with the punisher. And it’s also about putting the person punished at a distance from “us good folks” or at least from "those of us not getting punished, probably because we're good folks."

    As Eli_Rector observes, punishment isn’t necessarily the most efficacious means of discouraging or controlling bad behavior or of keeping the community safe. The point stands: it’s wise to think carefully about handing power to those who are disposed to select a method of control that focuses on playing to anger and emphasizing the exclusion of those who violate rules.

    (I wish Nietzsche had left bloodhounds out of it, though. They're perfectly nice dogs, even though their eating gets a bit sloppy, what with the ears and all.)

  5. For Nietzsche, the "tarantulas" were the "preachers of equality," and his Zarathustra saw them as motivated by revenge and a desire to punish the strong. So the quotation in context was nothing I would wish to endorse. I did not wish to take a single sentence out of its original context without totally reframing it and proposing that we use it as a criterion with which we can scrutinize those who would be our political leaders.

    I actually had a specific man in mind in writing this, but the issue does seem to me to have enduring relevance. Three incidents in this campaign season illustrate the point.

    In the first, we were reminded of the fact that in 1989 Trump called for the death penalty at the time of the arrest of five suspects in the attack on the Central Park Jogger, men who were convicted but later fully exonerated with DNA evidence and the identification of the real attacker. Trump, far from being chastened by this turn of events, was snide and sarcastic, retorted that the five men had not been angels and asked whether they had been in the park playing checkers. This is an urge to punish which arises from the desire to dominate and be obeyed.

    Another incident (no doubt on YouTube somewhere) occurred during a speech in which this candidate pantomimed a soldier on a firing squad shooting Bowe Berghdal for desertion, just as he thinks they did automatically in the good old days. This overlooks the fact that Eddie Slovik was shot for desertion in 1945 after a long court martial, and was the only soldier to be shot for desertion since the Civil War. Trump thought that Bergdahl would have been shot "thirty years ago." He thinks that a punishment which has been used only once in the past 150 years was done routinely within living memory, and that this would be a good thing which a real man's army would do in a summary fashion, thus making America Great Again.

    The third (actually there are several of these) have been evident at his campaign events during which protesters have shouted and waved banners and otherwise exercised their right to free speech. These do not need to be cited individually since they are familiar to all of us. These protesters all deserve to be punished right on the spot, preferably by his enraged followers.

    The pattern which connects these incidents is that of Zarathustra's tarantula: the desire for revenge. The urge to punish is connected to the need to get even, since there is no such thing as a trivial insult: each small affront is a mortal threat, and death will certainly ensue unless anyone who does not show deference is promptly crushed and annihilated. Political power entrusted to this tarantula will be used as venom against us all.

    That is what I meant by "substance, not trivia."

  6. From my 2016 "non-trivial" presidential debate fantasy:


    I'd like to begin, if I may, with a quote from William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's law partner :

    "I wish to say a word or two about Mr. Lincoln's fatalism—First he believed that both matter and mind are governed by certain irrefragable and irresistible laws, and that no prayers of ours could arrest their operation in the least."

    And from Lincoln himself in 1864 as Union victory began to draw near, "I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

    This question is for you first, Secretary Clinton, and then to you, Mr. Trump: Lincoln is acclaimed as one of our greatest presidents. To what degree do you believe that the President of the United States can control events? Do you think that Lincoln understood something that we would do well to understand today? Or do you think that he was simply wrong, and do you think that as president you can control events better than he ever could? You have sixty minutes to respond, followed by ninety minutes for Mr. Trump, and then back to Secretary Clinton for a thirty minute rebuttal.

    Please proceed.

  7. I've already paraphrased him without attribution, as I threatened I would. Bullies suck, is the shorter version.

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