Forward Thinking: How Should We Punish People For Moral Failures?

In response to the Forward Thinking prompt:

How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

Ok, I think the thing that I need to establish up front is that none of us have the right to inflict “punishment” on most of the people in our lives. Punishment, as I see it, can only be meted out by someone who is in a position of legitimate authority over another person. And by ‘legitimate’, I generally mean consensual, either at the personal level, or at a communal/societal level. At the personal level, consensual authority would exist if I were to ask someone to help me police my behaviour in some way and we agreed in advance what consequences might occur if I fail in my desired behavioural change. At the communal level, legitimate authority is established when people collectively agree on what behaviours cannot be tolerated, and on how they will be dealt with. A good example of would be a well-executed anti-harassment policy (wherein a person violating someone else’s boundaries is removed from the environment in which the policy is enforced). Of course, not all communally or societally established authority is legitimate, but thankfully, I haven’t been asked to deal with the communal level here, so I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

So, the personal level, then. To illustrate my feelings about the exercise of ‘punishment’ against people over whom we have no authority, I’m going to pull out one of my pet peeves. It’s a trope in our society that when someone’s live-in significant other (usually male) does something “wrong” they are required to sleep on the couch. I find this dynamic to be superbly fucked up. From my perspective, if my partner does something I don’t like, that doesn’t give me the magic power to tell him what to do, and certainly doesn’t give me the power to tell him where he can sleep in the home that is his as much as it is mine (though I would have the right to kick him out of my bed or even my apartment if we did not have shared ownership of the bed/living space). I do have the right to deny my presence to him, absolutely, but if I am the one insisting that we not sleep in the same room, I do not also get to be the one who decides who sleeps in the bedroom. I cannot tell him what to do, though I can (and sometimes do) choose not to sleep wherever he decides to sleep.

And I don’t care that he did something wrong, I don’t care that sleeping on the couch is a form of penance (although if he willingly decided to sleep on the couch knowing that was the only way I would sleep on the bed, that would be a nice gesture and an indicator that he was sorry); none of this changes the fact that we are two autonomous beings, and I have no authority over him. And I cannot rightfully inflict punishment against him, period.

So, it is my position that for the most part and in almost every case, we cannot punish other people in our lives for moral failings.

That said, though, there are things that we can do, and generally should strive to do whenever we have the necessary energy (in escalating order):

  1. Express your disapproval.

If someone you know is doing something morally wrong, make it clear that you do not condone their behaviour, and wherever possible, explain why it is unacceptable. Sometimes people don’t realize the moral implications of their actions. Sometimes they are simply depending on not being called on it. Making it clear that you disapprove can be a powerful tool in changing a person’s behaviour


  • Explicitly refuse to be complicit.

If the person in question is trying to recruit your support (even passively) or if keeping quiet about the moral failure in question makes you feel morally culpable, make it clear that you will not be silent about their actions if you continue to be aware of them. Expressing disapproval while also remaining mum and allowing the moral wrong to continue sends mixed messages, and undermines your expressed disapproval.



  • Follow through.

If the person continues to share the details of their transgressions, do not remain silent. Either warn the people who stand to be harmed by the wrong-doer, or bring the information to someone in a place of legitimate authority (i.e. if someone is stealing from their workplace, the managers have legitimate authority to punish them by firing them, and if someone is breaking a law, then the legal system has the (admittedly dubious in some cases) authority to deal with that).



  • Remove yourself from their life.

In extreme cases, moral failing may be so great that you feel morally culpable simply for associating with that person. If your continued presence in their life is enabling their continued moral failing in any way (including simply by sending the message that their behaviour will not hurt them socially) that you don’t feel comfortable with, you are well within your rights to avoid associating with that person. for coworkers, this would involve a refusal to interact with them in any non-work-related capacity.


These tactics all work best with people with whom you have voluntary relationships (friends, family (you don’t choose your family, but generally once you’re an adult, you can choose whether you will associate with them), and the like). With coworkers, deciding whether or not it is worth employing these tactics involves weighing a lot of external factors, including your job security and your ability to continue to do your job effectively, and the like. And we don’t always have the strength or energy to stand up against every poor moral decision made by the people in our lives. But if you want to act, and you want to do so without yourself exercising illegitimate authority (which would itself be morally wrong), these are the kinds of things you can do to discourage continued moral failings.


  1. Well put! I always feel uncomfortable with the concept of “punishing” the people in my life; I’m not their parent, nor am I any kind of authority figure! To punish someone in your life for what is seen on your part as a “moral failing” seems…. well, very passive-aggressive, to say the least.

    Unless, as you mentioned above, it’s been negotiated and consented to ahead of time. But I see that in more of a “breaking bad habits” context than a “punishment for moral failings” context.

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