Why am I being punished?

If it’s not my job to be right…

…then why am I being punished for not doing the right thing?

Why am I in prison?
Why was I fired?
Why did my loved ones leave me?
Why do I have to pay?

Our video about evaluativism suggests that the first practical step to overcoming evaluativism is to believe that it is not your job to be right—rather, it is your job to be yourself. It says that people who aim to be right more and more often are aiming to be God, that we should instead be like lawyers in a courtroom, serving the cause of truth by sticking to our assigned opposing perspectives, knowing full-well that at least half of the opposing perspectives must be wrong in some way.

So, let’s suppose you were serving the cause of truth by sticking to your assigned perspective, it turns out that you were wrong, and now you are being punished… Should you become someone else?

The Prevalence of Punishment

First, let’s acknowledge how often punishment happens. Roughly 1.4 percent of men (5 percent of black men) and 0.1 percent of women in the U.S. are currently incarcerated. If we include probation and parole, the numbers multiply by four (about 6 percent of all men). Roughly 14 percent of working age men in the U.S. have been convicted of a felony at some point in their past, and over half of all men in the U.S. will be arrested at some point in their lives.

That is not to say that women are less likely to face punishment. If we define punishment to include any suffering imposed by one person on another, then we realize that most punishment is not imposed by legal authorities. Other countries currently host thirty-seven ongoing military conflicts, each large enough to kill over 100 people per year. Meanwhile, over 35 million people currently live in slavery, and 22,000 children die every day from poverty. Our planet currently produces enough food to nourish every single one of us, so it is perfectly reasonable for the victims of all of these atrocities to wonder, “Why am I being punished?” That question may arise just as often to women, and in countries where incarceration occurs less.

Back in the U.S., 85 percent of romantic relationships will end in a break-up, and the median employment tenure is just 4.7 years for men and 4.5 years for women. Even if you call it “amicable separation,” every ended relationship is an instance of punishment where one party maintains, “You are not behaving correctly (at least not for me).” Instead of finding ways to leverage the diversity implied by our disagreements, people are believing that we are supposed to agree, that we are supposed to converge on the same values even when our physiological differences predispose us towards opposition. We punish each other for failing to meet this unrealistic expectation.

These statistics describe just the tip of the iceberg. Punishment begins long before physical separation. It begins with apathy. Only about a third of U.S. employees are currently considered “engaged” in their jobs. The other two thirds of us are either feeling punished or punishing our employers. Many relationships with loved ones are similarly on-the-rocks, as are relationships between citizens and their government. We might not be hosting ongoing military conflicts in the U.S., but we are still a besieged nation. Punishment is happening all around us every day, even if most of us are not physically in a prison.

So, if you are feeling punished, then you are not alone. Given the prevalence of punishment, it doesn’t make sense to take it personally. The best explanation for why punishment is so widespread is that we, as a society, are not very good at dealing with each other. That is a social problem—not your personal fault.

Here’s the good news: Just as you wonder, Why am I being punished? cavemen used to wonder, Why do I have fleas? As a society advances, both questions become asked less and less often. We’re just slower at ridding ourselves of punishment.

Social Reform

Even if punishment is just an infestation not yet fully stamped-out in modern society, those of us who are being punished will still wonder, What should I do about it? Should I change?

The effect of punishment had better not be to reform the person being punished. If the person being punished simply made an error, then the solution is education rather than punishment. On the other hand, if the conflict being resolved did not result from error—if it instead resulted from differences in physiological predisposition—then to reform the perpetrator would decrease opposition, thus reducing diversity and handicapping society.

Rather than reform convicts, the effect of punishment should be to reform society. Punishment enables social reform by providing separation and shifting resources. Convicts pay the price to make social reform possible. That’s really unfair. Society owes a debt to individuals who suffer punishment, and we should repay that debt by accelerating the social reforms their punishments fund. This is obvious regarding punishment of the innocent, as in the stories of Socrates and Jesus of Nazarath, but is equally true when punishing the guilty.

For example, suppose a child becomes addicted to a drug: Although we confine the child to rehab to address the immediate danger, we ultimately must reform society so that it does not provide children with access to such drugs. A bored child is sent to her room for getting into mischief, but we ultimately need to reform society (perhaps a dysfunctional family or classroom) so that the child stops being bored. A debtor loses his home so a bank can stay in business, but we ultimately need to reduce the ability of sellers to convince consumers to make inappropriate purchases.

Why is it that half of the people who are released from prison return within three years? It is because society is not reforming fast enough. Imagine a man who pays a mechanic to fix his car. When he returns, the car still doesn’t work and the mechanic asks for more money. “I payed the price,” the owner demands, “You said it couldn’t be fixed while the peace was being disturbed, so I stayed away. I gave years of my life in a prison. Was that for nothing?” We should be ashamed to ask that man to pay the price a second or third time.

At one time, it seemed reasonable to blame crime on individuals, but the big insight about evaluative diversity is that no individual is complete—we are best as parts of something larger, something diverse. No one is righteous when the stability of their lifestyle relies on punishing the other parts of that something larger.

Privacy and the Threat of Punishment

One of the GRIN types, natural negotiator, has a special relationship with the threat of punishment. Natural negotiators are achievers, so they are empowered by a shift towards capitalistic systems in which they can compete; however, competition is empowering only if everyone plays by fair rules. Thus, negotiators want there to be enough fear of punishment to dissuade their competitors from breaking the rules. If the governments we construct make rule-breaking the best strategy for getting ahead, then we are systematically oppressing natural negotiators. Therefore, we need to take punishment seriously.

The point of punishment, from the perspective of the negotiator, is not to get revenge, but rather to reduce calculated future crimes. In other words, the punishment is not directed at the person being punished; it is directed at people who have not yet committed the crime. Again, the goal is not to reform the convict, but rather the goal is to reform society, to scare everyone else into not committing crimes. The best way to figure-out when punishment would discourage future crimes would be to ask a jury of peers, and that is what we do.

On the one hand, such juries need to make sure the punishment is not too mild. If the crime can be leveraged to make billions on the stock-market, then the risk of spending ten years in jail might not be enough to dissuade the crime. Even if a convict is reformed, it could be a mistake to release him/her early because that release could encourage a different person to commit a crime (expecting a similar chance at early release). When we view punishment as a threat, it would be wasteful not to make it harsh.

On the other hand, if punishment is so frequent that it seems inescapable, then people will figure they might as well commit the crime. Therefore we cannot punish every hurtful act. We also have to be very careful about discrimination: if black men, or Muslims, or psychopaths are highly likely to get punished, then the punishment system may encourage them to be criminal. To make punishment work as a deterrent against future crime, we must collect strong evidence, so that the innocent can expect to avoid punishment even if they happen to fit a certain profile.

Collecting strong evidence requires reducing privacy. Partly that is about ubiquitous cameras, but its also about getting inside people’s heads because we need to know their motives. When we use punishment to deter crime we are punishing a motive—we are punishing someone for expecting to be able to get away it. That insight inspired the movie Minority Report in which privacy is so far gone that people could be punished even before the crime was committed.

Minority Report was onto something, but rather than punish the person, we should reform society. For example, if we know that Jack thinks he can get way with robbing the local convenience store, rather than punish Jack, we can improve the security system of the local convenience store (and make sure Jack knows about it). It doesn’t seem like a violation of privacy when the knowledge is used merely to identify security holes. That is where we are headed: a world that doesn’t need punishment to deter fowl-play.


We have told you that it is not your job to be right—rather it is your job to be yourself. Yet such behavior seems idealistic in a world filled with punishment. Interracial friendships likewise seemed idealistic in a world filled with racial slavery. Some people currently think punishment is unavoidable just like people used to think racial slavery was unavoidable, so being yourself can be an act of courage and faith.

If a natural negotiator is punished for trying to profit, should they stop trying to profit? No. Do not be reformed. It is the rules of profit that should be reformed.

If a naturally institutional person is punished for following their religion, should they stop following it? No. Do not be reformed. It is the religions that need to reconcile.

If a natural gadfly is punished for thirsting so much for change that they frustrate others, should they stop thirsting for change? No. Do not be reformed. Society should embrace progress so fully that gadflies are too busy facilitating change to waste time frustrating the establishment.

If a naturally relational person is punished for protecting their loved-ones, should they stop loving? No. Do not be reformed. The problem with love is that not everyone is loved enough.

It might not be right to try to profit, to follow a religion, to thirst for change, or to protect loved ones. Any of these activities can be wrong. But it is not your job to be right—it is your job to be yourself.

The short answer to the question, “Why am I being punished?” is that you are part of something larger, and you are serving that something larger by taking the hit. It is not fair, and should happen less and less often. In an ideal world, people would never do anything that would justify punishment—the only place it would be useful to talk about guilt and innocence would be in a history class. We are moving closer to that ideal world. In the meanwhile, you may be guilty, but the blame falls on all of us for not moving to the ideal world sooner.