The Problem of Punishment


Those in authority as well as their subordinates are responsible for their own actions, whether they give and order that is outside the scope of moral judgments (i.e. torture), or carry out orders given by someone in higher authority. However, there are often elements to a scenario that the public is not privy to. So, when we seek punishment, we do so at the peril of injustice. The problem with punishment begins with a lack of sure societal bounds, and ends with the impossible feat of attempting to identify the scenario’s moral absolutes. In between are the muddled facts, “classified” mission objectives, and a public that is more intent on punishment that on justice. Although there is a problem with assigning punishment, it is still a necessary aspect of society. In my view, given the most basic circumstance, punishment is due to whomever orders an immoral act. A certain amount of responsibility falls on the head of the one that carries out the order, because every action can be accounted for. However, it is upon those who wield the most power that responsibility weighs all the more heavily. Therefore, if I had to choose, I would punish the one that gave the order, rather than the one that followed the order. It is too bad that in this culture, people all too readily drag the lowest on the ladder of power into the courtroom and offer a sound beating for their betrayal of the public’s trust. Let’s talk about why this is the case.

He’s Not Like Me

When authority places undue pressure on subordinates to commit an unconscionable act, that authority should be held accountable for the order which was given, whether the order was ever actualized. Leaders are fallible and they are likely to pass poor orders from time to time, but it is when they do not respond to redirection from their subordinates and continue to press for an immoral or unconscionable act, that they are most definitely in need of punishment by society.

I believe that we should punish those in authority for immoral orders, but I have observed that societies are more likely to make public the discipline of subordinates than they are of authority figures. This is very true in America, where it is even common to reserve at least a little distaste for the government. What is the motivation for the public to string up the subordinates, knowing full well that they were following orders? It is not the immoral act that we are afraid of, it is the knowledge that they (meaning the person that acted immorally) are one of us; it makes us want to show the world that they aren’t like us at all.

Andrew Schmookler said it well in his piece, “Acknowledging our inner split” when he wrote, there is a comfort in demonizing the most monstrous and destructive among us, as if their being a different kind of creature made their example irrelevant to ourselves.” (190). Therein lies the problem with punishment, such that we judge based on the fears of what we ourselves are capable of. We punish the subordinate who followed orders because we want to prove that we are not capable of the same behavior. Yet, we know full well that we should seek justice against the one that gave the order.

Twisted Accountability

Authority figures often get away with passing along immoral orders without fear of recrimination, though they often deserve to bear the full weight of the law. The fear of our own potential that drives us to punish the subordinate for the crimes of his commander is part of the reason our leaders have retained the freedom to pass along immoral orders without concern for their own culpability.

As New York Times Op-ed columnist Bob Hebert said,

“There was a time, not so long ago, when commanders were expected to be accountable for the behavior of their subordinates. That’s changed. Under Commander in Chief George W. Bush, the notion of command accountability has been discarded. In Mr. Bush’s world of war, it’s the grunts who take the heat. Punishment is reserved for the people at the bottom. The people who foul up at the top are promoted” (Herbert op-ed page).

But the public was handed an army commissioned officer as a higher-authority scapegoat. Lt. Col. Jordan was put before military tribunal, but it was a decoy. According to the New York Times,

“The man on trial, Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, was not a career officer. He was one of a multitude of reservists pressed into Iraq duty, many of them for jobs beyond their experience or abilities. A military jury of nine colonels and a brigadier general decided that he was not to blame for the failure of to train or supervise the Abu Ghraib jailers and acquitted him on all charges related to the abuse. He was convicted only of disobeying an order to keep silent about Abu Ghraib. Even that drew only a reprimand, from an organization that Colonel Jordan presumably has no further interest in serving” ( editorial August 30, 2007).

Although we will complain in earnest that our government is wrong, we as a people rarely ever do anything to correct the situation beyond muffled vocalization. We know that the higher authorities should pay for their actions but we are content, at least so long as we don’t think about it, to accept the hasty judgments placed on our subordinate peers. We should not accept this, rather we should seek justice and punish the authority figures.

Incomplete Facts

We may agree to punish the one that gave the order, but often facts are muddled and the public is not privy to key data. Considering the fact that the truth of the situation is often hidden behind a veil of wartime security procedures, we must understand that sometimes punishment should be reserved, or even withheld altogether. Those nearest the center of security and State confidence have more information regarding the necessary outcomes of any given event, and are more keenly aware of the price of mission failure. It is within their prerogative to decide whether a soldier’s moral compass, conscience, and/or life is worth the sacrifice if it holds intact the greater goals of our society. What happens as a result of a morally driven society that seeks to hunt down and destroy soldiers that break the code of ethics, is an imbalance of focus and determination on the battlefield at the moment of decision. In the intensity of the moment, while being shot at and taking cover from explosives, the soldier must weigh whether the foreseeable punishment for following the order is less or greater than the likely punishment he will receive at the behest of a tooth-gnashing public. Because of the ferocity with which the public pursues the ‘justice’ against military operatives that follow immoral orders, it is not the commander that receives punishment, but the subordinate – the peer of the public. For this reason and for the reason that the public simply cannot be fully informed of the events that led to the order, at times it can be appropriate to blindly accept that the orders were given of necessity and that punishment should be withheld.

A problem with seeking punishment for authority figures for passing orders immoral orders down to their subordinates is that neither the public nor the courts, nor anyone who is out of the loop will ever fully comprehend the purpose or reasoning behind the authorization of any particular mission. There are details about missions that cannot be revealed to the public because of the sensitivity of our national security. Often a scapegoat is simply put in place just to alleviate the irate and determined public, to keep an official in office who has the knowledge essential for State security. Since the State has a symbiotic relationship to its citizens (Bosanquet 167-170_, the State’s security is the citizen’s security. Sometimes, when the public demands justice, the government is forced to provide a scapegoat.

The Dilemma of Judgment

There is another problem with punishing authority figures. Just as there is no person qualified to pressure another into unconscionable acts, neither is any person qualified to judge another for carrying out these acts. Unless it is proven beyond doubt that the orders were given (or the actions committed) with indifference to the common good (Bosanquet 170), no one is wise enough to see the situation clearly in order to judge equitably. To compensate for this shortfall, society has built a complex system of laws and loopholes in order to provide a framework for justifiable punishment via the court system. Often authority figures avoid legal punishment and we find that despite the fact that we started out to punish those in authority, the legal system has walked us into a situation where we were forced to discipline a subordinate.

Often the situation is less muddled, though. We can see clearly that an action was immoral and that there are adequate grounds for condemnation. In these situations I believe that those in authority should be punished appropriately according to whatever order they gave, whether it was carried out. I believe what would be best for society is to find a way to determine the motivations of those that give and follow immoral orders. Did they act for good or ill purposes? If it can be found that their motivation was based on transient emotions, or that they did not consult their chain of command before delivering the immoral decision, they should be punished.


Despite the complexities of every immoral situation, the popular way to satisfy our thirst for justice is to find the most obvious fiend, and load him down with our disdain to show that he is not one of us. This means it can either be the authority figure or the subordinate that ultimately receives the punishment. It may be wrong for us to seek justice so blindly, but we do it anyway. If someone is to be punished, I would punish the authority figure, assigning to him as well the punishments derived from the actions of his subordinates. In this I would hope to establish that there is no safety net to protect (those who give orders) from consequence and remind our authority figures that we will seek punishment for them, and there is no immunity. Hopefully, with more responsibility placed upon the leaders, we will see a decline in muddled facts and be able to judge more equitably in every case wherein someone is accused of committing an immoral act in time of war.

Let us learn from the incidents of our past, such as the horrifying betrayal of conscience at Abu Ghraib, and attempt to proceed with wisdom and caution in our societal attempts to pursue justice. Let us not blindly lash out for vengeance in order to make sure that our immoral peers are not associated with us. In all things pursue moderation, and tie yourself to that which is prudent. Justice must come from a heart of compassion, or it is simply not justice. Blame must come from a need for justice, or it is just gossip. Let us not castigate scapegoats on the altar of our own pride, but let us hold high the banner of justice and portray an organic and level-headed society in which justice is a natural progression of our meek perspectives.

Cited Works

Schmookler, Andrew Bard. “Acknowledging Our Inner Split.” Meeting The Shadow. Eds Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. (190).

Herbert, Bob. “On Abu Ghraib, The Big Shots Walk.” New York Times. April 28, 2005. Opinion Editorials.

New York Times “Abu Ghraib Swept Under The Carpet.” August 30, 2007. Editorial.

Bosanquet, Bernard. “On The State.” Meeting The Shadow. Editors Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991 (160-170).

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