When I was in high school, my school sometimes brought in speakers to give talks to the school body at weekly assemblies. One week, the speaker was an American soldier who related some of his experiences in the military and how they affected his outlook on life. I remember one particular part of his speech well—he brought up something called the “Heinz dilemma.” There are a number of different ways to describe it, but here’s how he presented the scenario: Your spouse is very ill and will surely die unless they get the medicine they need. However, the pharmacist upcharges the medicine considerably, making it too expensive for you to afford. Do you steal the medication and break the law, but save your spouse? Or do you follow the law and allow your spouse to die a preventable death? His answer was: you should steal the medicine, save your spouse, but then afterwards, turn yourself in to the police and take responsibility for your actions, to make right for the crime you committed.
While I believe the soldier told us his answer to generate a discussion, I find the actual implications of the viewpoint to be disgusting and harmful. That answer epitomizes a larger problem with how we view the concept of justice in America.
The problem with his answer is that it posits that you have a moral imperative to receive punishment because you broke the law. But in this scenario, no one is helped by you turning yourself over to the police and then going to jail because you stole the medicine. You are certainly worse off because you’ll be in prison, and your spouse is worse off because you won’t be there with them after they recover. The taxpayer, and society as a whole, are worse off because your imprisonment is a financial burden. This action helps no one, and many people are harmed. So why would the soldier have come to this conclusion?
It stems from the idea of “justice.”
What is justice? Many a philosophy student has debated this question, but a quick internet search reveals many basic definitions—almost all of which revolve around the idea of people getting what they “deserve.” Simply put, justice as defined here, and as many people think of it, is a harmful concept. In the Heinz dilemma, the soldier believes that because you break the law to steal the medicine, you need to pay for that crime by serving time in jail, getting what you deserve for breaking the law. “If you do something bad, you should be punished” is seemingly the fundamental tenet of justice to most.
I’m hesitant to embrace an idea like this. I want to make the world a good place for as many people as possible, so it’s essential to remember that law-breakers are also people. The only reason I think someone should be “harmed” is if it will truly make the world better off. The common concept of justice is directly contradictory to this—it suggests that people should be punished based on past acts, regardless of their present or future intent. Justice is no more than revenge and retribution under a different name—the brute desire to harm those who have harmed us. But in a modern society, we must rise above that desire to gain the best possible outcomes.
However, I’m not arguing that we should never punish people for their crimes. Legal systems do serve a crucial role in keeping serial criminals off the street, deterring crime and rehabilitating criminals. Yet, I think the idea of punishment being morally righteous is more damaging than whatever good it actually does create by helping us maintain a functional society.
While this may seem like semantics, it’s an important distinction. The real-world effects of this “righteous” mindset are plain as day in the American justice system. Many aspects of the system clearly embody the idea of punishing those who commit crimes with no regard for the actual impacts of those punishments. The United States holds 2.3 million people in prison—far more than any other nation in the world. This is a result of many problems within the judicial branch, including over-punishing minor crimes, ripping fathers out of families with long prison sentences and generally focusing on punitive rather than rehabilitative sentencing.
All of these consequences are harmful, and all of them are caused by a skewed idea of justice. In order to effectively fight crime and help people in our country, we need to discard the idea of justice as it is today and focus only on finding the most positive outcome. If we cling to the notion that every misdeed inherently needs an equal punishment, we are only inflicting unnecessary harm on criminals and ourselves. That’s right: the problem with our justice system is how we view justice itself.