Buddhism, Punishment, and Reconciliation

Journal of Buddhist Ethics 19:369-395 (2012)
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Abstract
One important foundation of Buddhist ethics is a commitment to nonviolence. My aim in this paper is to work out the implications of this commitment with regard to the treatment of offenders. Given that punishment involves the intentional infliction of harm, I argue that the practice of punishment is incompatible with the principle of nonviolence. The core moral teaching of the Buddha is to conquer evil with goodness, and it is reconciliation, rather than punishment, that conforms to this teaching. I argue that a commitment to nonviolence requires not only that we refrain from inflicting intentional harm, but that we refrain from inflicting unnecessary harm, and that this has important implications concerning the practice of incapacitation. I analyze the concept of harm and argue that the Buddhist understanding of this notion leads to the conclusion that none of the standard justifications for punishment are compatible with the principle of nonviolence, properly understood.
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