“Prisons are no good, they are free hostels that accommodate every need of their inmates.

This includes gaining a University degree.” How would a utilitarian and Kantian view this?
This quote seems intrinsically biased against criminals, and the analogy created between prisons and almost some sort of paradise is rather far-fetched. However, there may be some truth in the statement, maybe criminals are not being treated harshly enough, and deserve to have more human rights deprived from them to show others that prison is not an easy option. A utilitarian would not share the viewpoint found in the quote1. Utilitarianism is structured around the belief that actions should be taken in the effort of resulting in the least possible human suffering for the greatest number – “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It was a “Eureka” moment for Jeremy Bentham – the founder of utilitarianism - when this thought came to mind. This is now commonly known as the Greatest Happiness Principle, or the Principle of Utility. To ease confusion over utilitarian ideals over specific issues Bentham devised a methodology to determine which actions were best taken. This is known as the hedonic, or felicific, calculus. The calculus takes into account the intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent of actions so it can be determined which is right under the Principle of Utility. Using the hedonic calculus a utilitarian would probably see that the duration of suffering in a prison with poor conditions was unnecessary pain. Even if the criminal had scarred the lives of many people the number of people scarred would have to be great as their pain would unlikely be comparable with that of a criminal suffering in a prison with poor conditions or receiving severe treatment from prison staff. Some may argue that criminals should not be treated in the same way as others with the hedonic calculus as they are not law abiding. However, most would argue that prisoners should be treated with fundamental human rights like all other human beings. Utilitarianism can be divided into two sub-categories: Rule Utilitarianism, and Act

“the quote” refers to the title quote in this essay unless specified otherwise 1

Brendan Howard 6JDS

Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism is a methodology whereby the best rule of conduct is chosen to be followed – a particular rule is followed. As opposed to Rule Utilitarianism, Act Utilitarianism looks at the specific act and its consequences to find the ideal Utilitarian stance. Using the system of Rule Utilitarianism one would see past the possibilities of making prison even worse for the innocent people that live there and instead be more inclined to support the viewpoint expressed in the quote. Act Utilitarianism on the other hand, would be more workable into society as one examines each case in hand rather than following a rule, which could be greatly unsuited. Bentham’s theory was Act-Utilitarian: “According to act-utilitarianism, it is the value of the consequences of the particular act that counts when determining whether the act is right.” – Jeremy Bentham There are problems with both theories, however. Act Utilitarianism seems to be capable of justifying any crime whereas Rule Utilitarianism does not recognise the complexity of the world and that the complexity is too great for creating rules for everything. John Stuart Mill, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham and one of the most famous utilitarian thinkers, was a strong supporter of capital punishment and would have been more prone to share the stance held on prisons in the quote. It was JS Mill that came up with the idea of “higher” and “lower” pleasures to more easily calculate a utilitarian viewpoint - although the viability of the hedonic calculus is still very arguable. Kantian ethics, although very aware of each individual’s rights to be treated equally and not worse than any other, are more supportive of the viewpoint expressed in the quote. Although Kant believed that humans should not be treated “as a means to an end” he did not recognise criminals as holders of this right. Like the Principle of Utility in utilitarian ethics, The Categorical Imperative is the keystone of Kantian ethics. The Categorical Imperitive has three versions, the most important being as follows: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should
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become a universal law.” – Immanuel Kant This ideology of universal laws is reminiscent of Rule Utilitarianism. Also, like with the utilitarian hedonic calculus, Kant spoke of a method of pinpointing the laws which have universal moral worth – laws that should be obeyed by all people. With this in mind the Categorical Imperitive has also become known as the “imperitive of morality.” Kantian ethics corrected the utilitarian belief that the punishment of innocent people can be justified by benefit for the majority. In brief, morality of an action derives from intrinsic rightness of the act rather than the resulting benefit or pain for the greatest number. Kantian beliefs are typified by the “Golden Rule of Christian ethics:” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Kant said that “only the law of retribution can determine exactly the kind and degree of punishment.” In simple terms this is the “eye for an eye” philosophy, that a deserved punishment is determined by the crime committed. It is with this maxim that Kant would certainly be a supporter of more harsh conditions in prison. He would have said that a criminal is put in prison to be punished, and that to be imprisoned the crime committed must be severe enough to justify no access to luxuries. The author of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, was very admiring of Kant. Hegel was the first “fan” of Kant and the works of he and of Feuerbach were very influential in those of Karl Marx. Marx said of Kant: “there is only one theory of punishment which is compatible with human dignity and that is the theory of kant” – Karl Marx Sonia Gandhi also said that Kant never deviated from his commitment to serve people with exceptional devotion. However, Mohatma Gandhi was more critical and he is infamous for saying “an eye for eye would make the whole world blind.” In conclusion, although there was no maxim for utilitarian or Kantian policy on this issue, one can imagine the likely viewpoints from each stance. The utilitarian would
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generally not be supportive of harsher prison conditions as it would involve “needless suffering” – although JS Mill would be an exception, who would probably disregard the pain of criminals. On the other hand, Kantian ethics would generally be supportive of “less freedom in prisons” as the maxim of “an eye for an eye” would involve criminals suffering like their victims. Of course, not all Kantian supporters would feel like this as some may not be able to see criminals as morally depraved but rather victims of society themselves. Some may still see punishment in prisons as treating people as a means to an end (ie. To make society safer or more productive). However, the Kantian would generally feel that as people are treated as rational beings they should be held accountable for their actions and should be punished accordingly. Personally, I think effort to make such a change in the prison system would be fruitless, with much more pressing issues at hand for the governments of the world.

Brendan Howard 6JDS


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