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How Harsh is Too Harsh?

October 28, 2010

Hobbes defines freedom as the absence of an opposition that would provide resistance towards an individual’s actions.  He considers this unconstrained movement an example of our liberty and freedom.  But how much liberty should one have and how much restraint keeps one safe?  The concerns of safety should always be a top priority when establishing laws, but to what extent should they prevent the freedom of each individual’s actions and rights?  Laws are established to protect and preserve our freedoms, and when violated, there needs to be repercussions to conserve order in any society.

Hobbes says that “a punishment, is an evil inflicted by public authority on him that hath done, or omitted that which is judged by the same authority to be a transgression of the law; to the end that the will of men may thereby the better be disposed to obedience” (224).  Punishments are important because they demonstrate the harsh consequences that prevent bad behavior and unsafe conditions from reoccurring.  While they may seem strict or unfair at times, there will never be an agreed upon ultimatum of what is fair in response to an act.  Hobbes explains that we give up our rights to be governed under the sovereign to ensure peace and prosperity, and it is his responsibility to issue just laws and reprimands to punish criminal behavior.  We rely on sovereigns to make good decisions that although we may disagree upon, ultimately benefit the good of the commonwealth.  He explains this in the following text:

“The foundation in the right of punishing- exercised in every commonwealth.  For the subjects did not give the sovereign that right; but only in laying down theirs; strengthened him to use his own, as he should think fit, for the preservation of them all: so that it was not given, but left to him, and to him only” (205).

I’ve related this idea to my experience living in Singapore in the late 1990s.  Singapore is known for being not only neutral, but having an interesting form of punishment and law regulation.  For punishment, the Government of Singapore relies heavily on caning as their most severe legal corporal penalty.  It is reserved for male criminals under 50 who commit one of at least 30 different offences under the Criminal Procedure Code, which include robbery, drug use, rioting, and vandalism.  While it is a practice that many may consider inhumane and barbaric, it is what Hobbes believed should be issued when people commit these types of crimes.  He says on page 226 that “corporal punishment is that, which is inflicted on the body directly, and according to the intention of him that inflictith it: such as are stripes, or wounds, or deprivation of such pleasure of the body, as were before lawfully enjoyed”.

When I moved to Singapore in 1999, there was still a stir about the 18-year-old American expat named Michael Fay, who was convicted for vandalism and sentenced to 6 strokes of the cane as punishment.  This sparked worldwide publicity and issues between Singapore and the United States.  While Fay had violated laws under the 1966 Vandalism Act, his sentence was reduced from 6 to 4 strokes as a gesture of respect towards US President Bill Clinton.  The United States found the caning to be excessive for a non-violent crime and twenty-four U.S. senators signed a letter asking for an appeal to the Singaporean government.  However, the Singaporean government was only following out with the same punishments that it has for its own citizens.

Do you believe that this form of punishment is a suitable consequence for crimes such as vandalism and theft?  While this may not be the protocol in the United States, I found that living under this type of strict government definitely had its benefits.  The Tourism Review marked Singapore as one of the safest cities in the world, and has always been known for its pristine cleanliness and order.  If repercussions like these were threatened in the United States, do you think they would have a greater impact on our safety than our regulation has now?



  1. Madeline Smith permalink
    October 29, 2010 1:31 PM

    I’ve always felt that those who choose to break the law should be prepared to face consequences. I am not at all opposed to a violent punishment for a nonviolent crime. I do think that it would decrease the amount of vandalism, robberies, etc. if they had a greater fear of punishment.

  2. matteric9 permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:53 AM

    I do believe that the laws of a country have a significant connection with ones actions. However, if such strict laws were implemented in the United States it would cause a rebellion rather then a recession of crime. Now, do I believe Singapore is a safer country because of the excessively strict laws? I am sure that it does play a role when one contemplates a decision regarding the breaking of a law. Therefore, implementing such strict laws would definitely have its benefits. However, it would be impossible to establish laws like this at this point in American culture.

  3. greguff permalink
    November 2, 2010 8:25 PM

    I completely agree with the previous comment. Implementing these new strict laws in America is extremely unlikely and would outright by rejected by most people in our country. Although Singapore is considered a safer country, it is unlawful for the government to perform those actions on the citizens especially for crimes that insignificant. Cruel punishment would help diminish crime rates, however our country tried to put a stop to this as “there is no cruel and unusual punishment.” Strict punishment in our country would get out of hand, and the government would have too much control. Although it is an interesting idea, it would never be implemented in our government.

  4. changmc permalink
    November 4, 2010 4:02 PM

    I don’t agree that this punishment is suitable for petty crimes like vandalism, however I am not opposed to it. There is a point where we need to realize that a few canings would be a fitting punishment for breaking the law, but not without serious consideration of the context and severity of the law infringement. In regards to your last question, I definitely believe that more severe consequences would dramatically change the lives of criminals and law offenders as well as the American people. In severe economic times like these, without the dangers of physical punishment, some people would actually prefer to live under the prison system because it provides them with food and shelter. The American people, in turn, have to pay taxes in order to support these people. With adequate physical punishment being doled out by the government, people would think twice about breaking the law.

  5. arimark91 permalink
    November 9, 2010 7:27 PM

    Well, according to Hobbes, the Leviathan does have the right to punish you, but you also have the right to resist. The leviathan is there to protect you, and as soon as he tried to kill or punish you, he is no longer protecting you and fulfilling his duty, so you can resist him. The job of the government is to protect the people. While I do agree that punishment is necessary, the punishment should fit the crime. It is a great thing that people have the right to an attorney so that they can make sure (as best they can) that they receive a punishment that fit their crime. I think caning might be a little too strict for a vandalism crime.

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