The more evil I encounter in ordinary places, the more convinced I become that many criminals withering away in prison are not alone responsible for their crimes. In this respect, they resemble my “non-criminal” friends who regularly commit unconscionable acts. They resemble many readers of this essay, some of whom are probably committing objectionable acts while reading this essay. And they resemble me, in that I have also committed horrid acts condoned by the culture and legal system surrounding me. But because I cannot bring myself to believe that we “normal” people deserve incarceration, I am starting to doubt also that widely condemned criminals deserve the harsh punishments they receive.
Let me back up. Although I have not always been, I am now vegan and will remain vegan until I die. I refuse to consume animal products, because I consider it wrong to torment sentient beings for fun. I take comfort in the fact that many people share my sentiments. Most Americans recognize, at least in theory, that it is unethical to torture sentient creatures needlessly.
When it comes to animals, though, our actions often contradict our words. We teach children to respect animals, but we pay businesses to castrate male pigs without anesthetic, to impregnate cows via “rape racks,” and to destroy chickens’ beaks, sometimes so profoundly as to prevent the victims from eating. We chow down on lobsters dismembered and boiled alive, drink milk wrested from hapless goats, and flaunt wool ripped from the backs of abused sheep. All told, we Americans kill billions of animals annually. We “peace lovers” sometimes participate in this odiousness without a hint of irony, having convinced ourselves that it is possible to respect sentient animals while harming them. Others of us simply ignore the contradiction, content to promote peace in the streets while unthinkingly ingesting corpses in the dining room.
Others of us claim that non-human species—because they are less rational and morally informed than humans—actually deserve nothing better than their inferior treatment. But this justification begins to collapse when we remember that the newborn human babies we so adore, as well as some cognitively impaired adults, are no more rational or morally informed than the animals that humans eat and wear regularly. And even if we somehow manage to circumvent this reality of “species overlap,” we fall short when we then try justifying the unsettling idea that rational and morally informed beings are the only ones who deserve torture-free lives in the first place.
Most meat-eaters are not malicious, though. Many non-vegans are actually deeply compassionate.
They assist sick relatives, donate to the needy, hold doors for strangers, and even mourn the deaths of their pets. True, non-vegans seem not to extend their sympathies to the animals they consume. But away from the dinner table, a good many non-vegans are as kind as can be. Some meat-eaters, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Noam Chomsky, even manage to achieve global renown for agitating on behalf of the oppressed.
This puzzling reality—that otherwise moral individuals voluntarily commit patently immoral acts—gets me thinking about the logic of retributive justice. Understandably, many Americans believe that murderers deserve death or life in prison for the crimes they commit. Although I have long opposed the death penalty because I fear wrongful executions, I have also never much doubted that actual killers deserve death. Nor have I ever categorically opposed life sentences without the possibility of parole. Like many Americans, I have thought that individuals who voluntarily commit unconscionable acts should have to take responsibility by suffering unpleasant legal consequences.
But my sentiments are changing. Whenever I see restaurants full of “normal,” “good” people slathering parcels of dead cow with barbecue sauce, I remember that barbaric cultural norms can motivate humans to act against their better judgment. I have thus concluded that people are not singly responsible for their misdeeds and that many retributive punishments today are too harsh.
If you struggle to understand this point, consider just how prevalent the denigration of animals really is. Every time they drive on the highway, meat-eaters are likely to encounter advertisements for sliced turkey lodged between hunks of bread. They are likely to send their children to public schools that serve decapitated chickens for lunch. They are bound to see televised models and actors proudly flaunting accessories made from alligators. In light of our world’s intractable addiction to the flesh of non-human species, it is hardly surprising that meat-eaters treat non-human animals like garbage and respond with confusion, indignation, or contemptuous laughter when a dissenting somebody suggests (accurately) that there is no meaningful moral difference between torturing a random cow and torturing a random human baby.
I am inclined to believe that many criminals—the ones who assault humans—are similarly inspired by other violent people to become violent themselves. Research on the adverse effects of child abuse vindicates my intuition. When only one child in a twin pair experiences abuse, the abused twin is markedly more likely than his similarly situated non-abused twin to embrace criminality. Causality is difficult to prove, but surely it is no far stretch to hypothesize that abuse teaches its child victims that aggression is a fine way of dignifying oneself, of showing the world that one’s wishes should not and cannot be ignored. And although the data on single-parent households do not definitively prove that growing up without a parent increases one’s chances of committing crime, the disproportionate amount of fatherless prisoners may very well suggest that fatherlessness, and perhaps the poverty with which it is associated, pushes children in a violent direction.
I say none of this to understate the severity of horrific crimes. For me, as for many people, there is hardly anything more infuriating and heartrending than unprovoked violence. Nor do I say any of this to suggest that we should permit dangerous individuals to roam freely. However, I maintain that we should restrain criminals primarily in pursuit of public safety, not retribution. And if we do remain committed to restraining criminals largely for the sake of retribution, in order to give them “what they deserve,” then we should at least urge judges to account for criminals’ unchosen circumstances when handing down sentences.
Ultimately, though, defeating cultures of violence will require more than finger-pointing and confinement. It may be tempting to treat mainstream criminals as “different” from us, but that would overlook most Americans’ serious, if banal and accepted, participation in the brutal slaughter of billions of sentient beings that have done nothing to deserve pain. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have contributed to this monstrosity, which makes it both practically inadvisable and morally questionable to treat retribution as a panacea. Let us instead try to promote respect—for humans and animals both—through education and rehabilitation of offenders. It may be our only hope.
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