Traditionally, what reasons justify punishing wrongdoing, such as criminal behaviour?I quote this section in order to point out that this has not been the opinion of the enlightened only recently. Socrates is brought up against it by Protagoras:
(2) Specific deterrence or incapacitation (i.e., deterring the wrongdoer);
(3) General deterrence (i.e., deterring third-parties);
(4) Rehabilitation; and,
Modern intellectual discourse favours the latter 4 justifications. Retribution is seen by many criminologists as primitive, if not irrational. But may a society -- i.e., a society aiming to be a just or good society -- impose punishment absent some strong conception of retribution? I am not so sure. Here is why....
If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong, only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished, and he who sees him punished, may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught. This is the notion of all who retaliate upon others either privately or publicly.Rational punishment does not look to the past but to the future, Protagoras says. Indeed, since we cannot change the past, the only reason -- that is, the only kind of purpose to which rationality even might apply itself -- for punishment must be an eye toward the future. Deterrence is rational. Rehabilitation is rational. Mere retribution is bestial, so he argues.
I think that the opposite is true. It is the beast who is most likely to forgo retribution. They will act not to revenge past harms, but to avoid fresh ones. They might kill you if they think you are still dangerous and sense a momentary advantage. They might just as readily avoid you to keep from presenting you with a chance to hurt them again. They will not feel any duty of honor to avenge themselves, or their families, nor to repay you for the wrongs you have done.
Retribution is a higher, not a lower quality. This is orthodox, is it not? Vengeance is the divine quality, not a bestial one. Human beings are urged to mercy and kindness toward their enemies not because it is irrational or animal to punish past wrongs, but because they are not high enough to do it well and justly. Be patient, return kindness for cruelty, and you will heap hot coals on their heads.
How fitting, then, that it was a Vicar who provided the author cited at the top of this post with his reasons. But this is not a purely Judeo-Christian view. The Ancient Greeks thought this too, those of them who were poets instead of philosophers. They also thought that vengeance and retribution were divine. Hesiod even tells you her name.