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What we punish and why

We punish wrongdoing, but do we do so consistently? Exactly what we punish and why is not so straightforward

Koen Smets
6 min readFeb 10, 2023

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When British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took office late in 2022, he pledged, “ This government will have integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level”. Not really an extraordinary expectation of the country’s leaders, but at the end of last month, things went rather bad for Mr Sunak. The chairman of his party who, as is customary, is also a member of the cabinet as a minister without portfolio, was found to have been involved in a conflict with the taxman, culminating in a settlement of £5 million (€5.6M, $6M). Mr Sunak eventually fired chairman Nadim Zahawi for failing to disclose that he had paid a penalty for tax avoidance, while Mr Zahawi himself claimed the tax authorities had concluded that he had only made a “careless but not deliberate” error. Opinions are divided on whether Mr Zahawi’s claim is correct, and hence on whether his punishment — being sacked — was justified. The episode raises an interesting question: what do we typically punish, and why?

The penalty he allegedly paid reflected not so much the fact that he made an error, but that he had thus deprived the tax authorities from revenue they were entitled to. (There is not normally a penalty for making an error as a result of which you overpay tax, for example.) Are we always so consequentialist where punishment is concerned?

Consequences and more

When you are stopped by police and they find that your vehicle is not roadworthy, you will get a penalty; if you happen to have caused an accident because your tyres are bald or your brakes are not functioning properly, your penalty is likely to be much larger. And if people are seriously injured or killed in such an event, the punishment will almost certainly be more severe still. The significant influence the magnitude of the outcome has makes this a rather consequentialist policy. If punishments are to function as a deterrent for undesirable behaviour, this focus on the consequences is somewhat puzzling, though. The actual outcome is hardly under the driver’s control, and mostly a case of (bad) luck. A driver causing physical harm or death will likely already be traumatized, and it is…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius