Friday, November 15, 2013

Why We Punish

Hammurabi is most famous for his law code - appropriately called "Hammurabi's Code."

Today, we looked at several laws and tried to determine whether or not they were fair by our standards.  We ended up having a quite a little dialogue in several classes.  Apparently, many of my students have A LOT to say.

Of course, since the conversation revolved around justice and punishment students were quick to answer, as fairness is something near and dear to their hearts.

So, why do we punish?

I gave students 4 reasons:
  • Incapacitate: stop criminals from committing the crimes again
  • Deterrence:  makes others think twice before committing a crime
  • Rehabilitation:  helps criminals recover so they'll stop committing the crimes in the future
  • Revenge:  the innate sense of justice that says - you deserve what's coming to you

Looking at Hammurabi's Code, we can see all but one of these reasons play out.  It seems like rehabilitation wasn't his number one priority.  

Let's look at Law 25, since this is one we didn't look at in class.

"If fire break out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire."

So, you're neighbor's house catches fire.  You go to help put it out.  You rescue his X-Box, but then think... you know... my X-Box is broken.  So you decided to keep it.  Looks like you're getting thrown into the fire if you get caught.

Does that incapacitate you?  You bet.  You'll never be committing that crime again.  Does it deter others?  Well, I know if my friend got thrown into a fire for stealing, it'd make me think twice.  Did the owner get revenge?  I'd say that could be a fine working definition for revenge.  Have you been rehabilitated?  Well...  ... probably not. (Lets leave the after-life out of it for a moment.)

The laws, of course, are harsh by today's standards.  (If you sass your parents, your hand is hewn off.  ...Hammurabi's words, not mine...)  But let's give Hammurabi some credit.  He made something from nothing.  Or at least he codified something out of the tons of unwritten laws from Uruk to Ur to Babylon.  Most any laws we create today are based off laws that have already been created.

*What did I want students to get out of this lesson?  Well, I'm not sure that lessons should always have a quantifiable, measurable objective.  I wanted my student to think through Hammurabi's reasoning.  Why might he have created the laws the way he did?  What about our society?  The laws in this Union - the United States - aren't perfect.  Can we make them perfect?  (Or perhaps, more perfect?) * 

...Of course, I also hope they remember that Hammurabi was a Mesopotamian king who wrote an early code of laws (called Hammurabi's code.)  And that all (or most all) ancient civilizations had a code of laws... and cities, specialized workers, and system of writing...


If you read this for extra credit, you were supposed to discuss it with an adult.  If you've done that, write down at least 3 sentences from your discussion.  Consider discussing the paragraph that begins and ends with the *.  Are there any laws in our country that you believe are unfair?  Need to be changed?  What can we do to make our country better?

Once you've written the three sentences on a piece of paper, have the adult you discussed it with sign it.  Then, turn it in on Monday.

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