There have always been individuals who break the law. As a society we have struggled with these people in terms of deciding how best to deal with them. Should they be punished, or should we seek to rehabilitate them? How tough should our response to their misbehaviour be?
The starting point in understanding society’s relationship with its miscreants is fairly clear and accepted. If you knowingly and deliberately break the rules of society then society has the right to take action against you.
The reasoning for this is that we recognise and value the benefit that living in society brings. Without society our survival as individuals and as a species would be short-lived. With its help we have, over thousands of years, distanced ourselves from nature. In so doing, we have become increasingly dependent on society for our protection and well-being. Without societal existence we would be weak and vulnerable, unable to withstand the ravages of nature. Effectively, society has been our evolutionary strength.
Of course, in any form of group organisation there must be rules. It’s the only way to maintain order. These rules are set for the survival of the majority, for the survival of society as a whole. It’s just like obeying the rules of the road – without the rules there would be confusion and chaos. Mayhem and a free-for-all would ensue.
Having recognised its importance, we must acknowledge that if society is allowed to break down our very survival could be put in danger. We must therefore uphold the rules of society. People who break those rules are a danger to society, a threat to our very existence. Their destructive actions must therefore be prevented.
Quite simply, society acts in the interests of the greater good. Individuals who challenge or threaten it must be dealt with. A challenge to society is a challenge to each and every one of us.
Seemingly, one of the drawbacks with society is that it is a one-form fit. This means that it may not suit everyone. So, although it is imposed on all of us, we should recognise that there will be some who struggle to live within its bounds. It is these people that will tend to be the rule-breakers, the criminals, the social outcasts.
Of course, we will all disagree with some aspects of societal life. For most of us there will be rules which we do not agree with. They will not be convenient, or we feel that they disadvantage us. But, ultimately, most of us accept that these are necessary things that we will have to do if we want to be a part of societal life. They are a cost that we must bear. They are for the greater good. We must look beyond our petty grievances towards a bigger picture and accept that the benefits far outweigh any detrimental costs or inconveniences.
Individuals need to recognise society’s worth and accept that society is, on the whole, good for them. The challenge is that there will always be individuals who shun society, who seek to exploit societal weaknesses, who are so self-centred that they have no awareness of the lives of others.
Society must deal with these people. The fraudster, the murderer, the litter lout, the drunk, the violent, the rapist, the graffiti artist, the thief, the joy-rider, the drug- dealer……
Unfortunately, there is no clarity around what we do with those that offend society. We generally accept that if somebody repeatedly breaks the rules of society then society has the right to punish them with ever greater severity.
Ideally, society would like to isolate these offenders, to expel them from society just as any local club would do to any of its mis-behaving members. And society has tried this ….. transporting prisoners to Australia, locking offenders away in prisons or mental hospitals and, even executing them. Yet the problem never seems to fully go away. There’s always somebody else who is prepared to break the rules.
If you cannot expatriate, isolate or terminate the problem then an alternative remedial action is required.
One thing we tend not to be prepared to do is to totally wash our hands of the problem. We are reluctant to go to the length of saying that if a person breaks the rules of society then that person forsakes the benefits of living in society.
There are three reasons to possibly explain this reluctance:
Firstly, society recognises that it has vulnerabilities. Society must ensure that individuals do not become so alienated from it that they become an even bigger threat. There have been many examples of states, empires, civilisations collapsing because they have effectively failed to maintain the structural pre-eminence of societal support.
The more society punishes an individual, the more that individual can feel resentment, alienation, victimisation. They may lose whatever sense of belonging they had. They become further distanced from the values and tolerances of society. They become more of a danger.
In some ways, society is fearful of its law-breaking underbelly. It recognises the threat that this underclass poses. It needs to be kept in check. But how? Society has always struggled in deciding how best to deal with it – to try to eradicate it or to placate it.
Secondly, societal living has a fundamental flaw. Society exists for the survival of us all. We are, by grouping together, looking out for one another. We are stronger together. And yet, our natural instinct, as individuals, is to try to better ourselves. This is demonstrable in many areas; financially, socially, emotionally, family, career. And that causes a problem.
If people think they can get away with something, then they will. They will do more of it and with increasing intensity. Why wouldn’t they? They’re getting one over on society. Something for nothing.
Individual actions, in pursuit of our own self-interest and betterment, may not necessarily be in the best interests of society as a whole. There is an inherent contradiction between the goals of the individual and those of society. Society, in many ways, acts as a brake on the pursuit of individual self-interest. And yet, ironically, it is this that is largely driving society forward.
Thirdly, it seems that society has a new-found understanding and prioritisation of individual human rights. We live in a new age of enlightenment. Many societies have these inalienable rights enshrined in law.
Society cannot therefore do as it pleases with offenders. We must be respectful of their rights as a human being. This is despite the fact that they choose to challenge the very basis for our continued existence – society and its rules.
Those human rights seem to have no limit. Whatever the crime. Can you ever forsake your rights as a human being? Are your human rights inviolable and untouchable? Is there anything a person could do that would deem them to be beyond humanity and that could therefore be considered as an act that relinquishes them of their human rights and any future existence in society?
It is for these reasons that we endeavour to keep offenders within the folds of society.
Some would argue that we have just gone soft on crime. That we too readily look for excuses as to why people behave in a criminal way. We give them a get out:
- They have a mental illness.
- Their behaviour is due to their drug or alcohol addiction.
- They have never been given an opportunity in life.
- They had a neglected up-bringing or were abused as a young person.
- They couldn’t help themselves given the position they were in.
But isn’t part of the role of society to look after its weaker members? We should be helping these individuals, not punishing them. And, of course, even with these excuses, there is that lingering feeling that perhaps it is not really their fault. Perhaps it is society that has driven them to behave in this way. If so, given society as the cause, how can we justify taking extreme sanctions against them.
All because our choice of society doesn’t suit everyone, it would be wrong to impose punishment or sufferance on those who it doesn’t work for. We must therefore be more understanding and considerate of their estrangement. But just how forgiving should we be? Is everything forgivable? Do people have a right to a second chance? A third chance? How many chances? When does society call time on somebody’s misdemeanours?