The Psychological Connection Between Crime and Punishment

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“To expect punishment is to suffer it; and to earn it is to expect it. Where there is a bad conscience, some circumstance or other may provide one with impunity, but never with freedom from anxiety.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

All is not right with the world. Not by any stretch. But it could be worse were it not for the connection between crime and punishment.

I don’t mean crime and punishment only as established by a written criminal code. By crime, I mean any act we know to be wrong, mean or evil. By punishment, I mean not only physical pain or loss but also the psychological pain only we know about.

Psychological pain -what Seneca calls a “bad conscience” and a lack of “freedom from anxiety”- is often the only punishment we suffer for our crimes.

“Psychopath” is the term we use for a person incapable of a “bad conscience” and we shudder at the possibility of falling prey to one. The psychopath is the exception, thankfully. What kind or world would we have if the psychopathic mind was the rule and the person with a conscience the exception?

An inconceivably wretched world.

Seneca also notes that, when it comes to punishment, “to earn it is to expect it.” This is why when we’re caught, we’re not surprised. In fact, we’re often relieved more than anything else. 

Can you remember things like breaking your mom’s vase or favorite ornament, and not saying it was you when mom asked who’d done it? Did you ever “borrow” your sister’s new shoes, lose them and then hide that it was you who’d taken them?

Most of us have committed such “crimes” and felt relieved to have been caught and “punished,” even if the punishment was just mom’s disapproval and verbal reprimand, or your sister’s temporary wrath and refusal to let you borrow anything ever again. (Of course “never again” turned into a month since she also wanted to borrow your stuff.) 

It’s weirdly interesting. The psychological self-punishment can feel worse than that doled out by others, which explains why usually, if we’re not caught, we end up confessing. We crave atonement.

Though legal consequences are necessary for a society to function, it’s helpful to remember that hardly anyone gets away with anything fully. Not the friend you so loathe because he apparently got away with stealing what was yours. Not the co-worker who took all the credit for your work. Not me. Not you.

Day 18 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

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