All societies around the world have adopted a set of laws that have been precisely designed to create an environment of peace, order and respect for universal human rights like the right to life.
It has therefore been necessary to create institutions such as the police force and courts of law; which have been given a responsibility of detecting, arresting and punishing individuals that fail to live by established laws in a society.
Generally, we have been intuited by our consciousness and our societies to approve punishments for the guilty (Those that have trudged on other’s rights or broken set laws). However, as we have often observed, our societies are so complex that it is hardly possible to establish a comprehensive system of appreciating the just and punishing the guilty.
Just like the guilty, the innocent have and will continue to be punished. A number of philosophical thoughts have therefore been presented on the morality of punishing the innocent intentionally. These philosophical thoughts have tried to justify the punishment of an innocent person in some specific circumstances.
It is useful here to evaluate the meaning of innocence. According to Murphy (2007), it is much easier to define innocence from the legal perspective as compared to doing the same from a moral perspective.
From a legal perspective, someone can be judged to be guilty (the reverse of innocent) if he/she has engaged in an act or behavior that is not allowed by a set of rules governing a society where he/she comes from (Murphy, 2007).
Moving to the moral field, the threshold moves to the grey scale as one is obliged to apply theories on morality, which often contradict each other, in order to define innocence (Murphy, 2007).
The utilitarian moral theory is oftentimes applied to justify the punishment of an innocent individual (Murphy, 2007). According to the utilitarian theory, an action or behavior can be evaluated to be morally acceptable or not depending on the effects that it will bring to the greatest number of people (Kay, 1997).
When an action brings about happiness and pleasure to an extensive portion of a population that it will affect, then, such an action is morally acceptable in the eyes of a utilitarian (Kay, 1997). However, when an action brings about suffering and pain to an extensive segment of a population that it will affect, then, such an action is judged to be morally wrong in the eyes of a utilitarian (Kay, 1997).
Considering that the process of punishing any person will automatically bring about pain to the one undergoing punishment, such a process will be morally acceptable to a utilitarian if it brings about joy to the most extensive segment of a population (Kay, 1997). The action of punishing a person for breaking a law/laws cannot therefore be acceptable to a utilitarian if the action will fail to contribute in bringing joy to many (Kay, 1997).
The innocence of an individual as it pertains to punishment is therefore of less importance here. What matters however is the effect of the punishment on the largest section of a populace-whether it will be able to bring them pleasure or pain (Kay, 1997).
It is therefore possible to picture some complex scenarios that may justify the intentional punishment of an innocent person as it pertains to the utilitarian theory. For example, let’s imagine that a rioting and destructive mob capable of destroying properties as well as killing and injuring thousands of lives is demanding that a certain individual be killed (Newman, 1995).
In this case, releasing the person whose life has been demanded by the destructive mob will definitely lead to many killings and pain; bringing about suffering and pain to many (Newman, 1995). On the other hand, killing the person whose life has been demanded by the destructive mob will deter the mob, and therefore save many lives and property, preventing pain for many (Newman, 1995).
In this case, although the concerned person may be innocent; at least in legal terms, an individual or party that is guided by utilitarian principles will not hesitate to punish him (the person whose life has been demanded by the destructive mob) even if it means murdering him, because such an action will be deemed to have prevented suffering for the largest segment of a population (Newman, 1995).
What about a person that has not been confirmed to be guilty and is held by the police for the reason that releasing such a person will lead to a series of crimes like murder that will immediately be done by the person in custody from the moment he is released (Newman, 1995).
The person in custody, although innocent, can therefore be subjected to punishment as he is held in a prison where he endures limited freedom and deplorable living conditions in order to prevent him from bringing about harm to a portion of a society where he operates from (Newman, 1995). On the other hand, the person in custody can be given freedom by releasing him from custody, something that will precede a series of sufferings to a portion of a society where he operates from (Newman, 1995).
The preferable action in the eyes of a utilitarian will therefore involve keeping the innocent person in custody, since this will prevent suffering to many. The person in custody is therefore sacrificed in order to save the largest portion of the society from pain (Newman, 1995).
It may also be necessary for a government to design and implement a policy tailored to combat a wrong that has been done to a population segment and bring the level of that segment to that of others in a society, as it pertains to their economic wellbeing among other parameters (Kay, 1997). Such a process will involve establishing policies like affirmative action to specifically favor minorities and the powerless in a society.
Implementing affirmative action means that individuals living in a society where such a policy is implemented will be compelled to sacrifice some of their rights that they would otherwise have enjoyed; such as the access to employment and education, in order for such rights to be distributed to minorities (Kay, 1997).
Although members of such a society may be innocent from oppressing minorities, they have been obliged to endure some form of punishment: when they sacrifice part of their rights (Kay, 1997). Such a price and sacrifice is of necessity in order for a government to accommodate every citizen and for the promotion of equality within a society.
For the purpose of preserving an important moral value that has been threatened in a society, say the value of freedom, a process that may involve punishing the innocent may become a necessity (Newman, 1995). In such a case, it may be necessary for a nation to go to war.
To defeat the enemy, it may be impossible to avoid injuries and casualties including those that are in no way involved in combat (Newman, 1995). It therefore becomes necessary to punish innocent segments of a population residing in an environment that is controlled by an enemy, during combat (Newman, 1995).
Although the principles of morality are hardly counted before embarking in combat, it may become morally right to consider the pain and suffering of populations affected by the war as a necessity required to protect and uphold a valuable moral right such as the right to freedom (Newman, 1995). The threat of terrorism for example has inspired fear and strived to limit our right to freedom (Newman, 1995).
Although the exercise of wisdom and control is of necessity to prevent unnecessary suffering during the war on terror, it may become unavoidable at times for a nation to participate in combat- in the endeavor of mitigating terrorism and preserving societal rights (Newman, 1995).
As has been seen, it becomes necessary in certain circumstances to subject innocent individuals to punishment to achieve certain moral purposes. The utilitarian theory justifies the punishment of a person whether guilty or not on the criteria that such a punishment will inevitably lead to the wellbeing of the most extensive population segment in a society.
Besides, policies like the affirmative action that emphasize on equality oblige government to compel some society members to sacrifice part of their rights for distribution to minorities. It may also become necessary to punish innocent members of communities in an environment controlled by an enemy by a nation that has gone to war to preserve important moral values like the right to freedom.
Kay, D., January 20, 1997.Utilitarianism. [Online] New York: Wofford. Available at: http://webs.wofford.edu/kaycd/ethics/util.htm [Accessed 5 December 2010].
Murphy, G.J, 1990. The killing of the innocent. The Monist, 57 (4), p. 527-550.
Newman, G., 1995. Just and painful. New York: McMillan.