How Harsh is Too Harsh?
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?