Why do we turn ourselves in?
Having successfully gotten away with a criminal act, many people become so overwhelmed with guilt that they end up turning themselves in anyways. This voluntary action of handing oneself over to the authorities for punishment is meant to bring closure to one’s conscience; it is a way to right the wrong that was committed. At the heart of this idea is the position that justice cannot be done without some form of punishment. Those turning themselves in essentially accept justice as restorative.
This way of thinking about justice goes back millennia. Hammurabi’s code – the first known written legal system – already contained the now famous “eye for an eye” provision as a way of restoring justice. Punishment need not be strictly reciprocal to be restorative however and most laws since have developed specific punishments for different crimes, whether these be fines, imprisonment, bodily harm, or even death. These more often than not fall short of strict reciprocity. But what they all hold in common is that they provide a means for a perpetrator to make up for the crime in an abstract sense. For instance, the law may deem five years in prison as the necessary restitution for a common assault.
"What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?"
(Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment)
What’s interesting is not that this system exists but how strongly we as a society believe in restitution according to the letter of the law. In other words, it is the need an individual criminal may feel for institutionalized punishment as a result of their actions that is truly surprising. This holds true even when punishment may not be in the best interests of society from a purely practical or utilitarian angle.
Take a case where someone has committed a grisly murder and gotten away with it, either through police incompetence or sheer luck. After the initial jubilation of having escaped the long arm of the law, they may begin to feel guilt and consider turning themselves in. If they do so they will probably end up sitting in prison for a very long time or even face the death penalty, restoring justice according to the legal principles set out by society. But beyond helping sooth the criminal’s own conscious and providing closure for the family and friends of the victim, this outcome gives little practical benefit to society at large.
In fact, governments incur large costs for keeping prisoners locked up or on death row and getting the conviction in the first place isn’t cheap either. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the perpetrator will not murder again and that enough other criminals are caught so that his escape does not lesser the effect punishment has as a deterrent.
Now take an alternative where the criminal does not turn themselves in. They have the same guilty feelings as a result of their action decide to dedicate their lives to doing general good deeds instead.
The criminal in this case may volunteer for a charity, donate a large portion of his income to good causes and generally try to be a better person than they were before. These things they do because of their feelings of guilt and had it not been for their crime, they would be doing none of them. Practically, it would seem that this option would provide society with more benefits then if the criminal had sat in prison for an extended period of time.
Still, many people would be inherently uncomfortable with this idea for the simple reason that the criminal appears to have gotten away with his crime; they have not been punished and there seems to be something deeply unsettling about that for us. Typically, we don’t plead for the perpetrator of a crime to go out and do good deeds as a way to make up for their actions. On the contrary, it is common for the police or the victim’s family to call for the criminal to turn themselves in to the authorities, telling them that it is this that is the right thing to do.
This may be because the victim or their family has not benefited from the murderer’s subsequent good work. But it is hard to see how punishing the criminal would benefit the victim’s family anyway, unless the punishment was in the form of compensation. Most punishments for serious crimes – in Western societies at least – are not.
Criminals themselves tend to hold this viewpoint. Take Dostoyevsky’s character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Despite getting away with the murder and robbery of a miserable old woman – something he even considers to be to the benefit of society – he is still driven mad throughout the rest of the novel. He even gives away much of the money he had stolen to needy people in an attempt to justify his actions but this does little to sooth his conscious. In the end, Raskolnikov ends up turning himself in to the authorities and accepts the harsh punishment of being sent to a work camp in the frozen tundra of Siberia.
It seems that what is at play here is the desire or need to confess for one’s actions. In other words, we need others to recognize the efforts that we are making in atoning for our crimes. This is because the criminal act is not only a violation of natural law – if such an absurd concept in human conduct even exists. It is also a violation of human law because as social animals, we sin against others in our community when we go and commit a crime.
For instance, killing another person is not wrong in itself or according to nature – one could even argue that aggressive and deadly competition between living things is very normal – but it is wrong precisely because it is a violation of the rules of the community to which we belong.
The death of another, understood as murder, is something only possible within a communal understanding through our rationalization of natural events by way of language. Even one's own private morals are derived from a social existence – so to believe murder is wrong is to do so because of one's interactions with others.
It is therefore not enough to seek to make amends by becoming a better person because without confession, there can be no absolution from the society one has wronged. Even in the Christian tradition where forgiveness is paramount, confession of one's sins against God is done to another person in the form of the priest. It is not the deity that is negatively affected after all – he is all-powerful – but other members of the Christian community whom we have sinned against. This is true even in cases where the sin seems of a very personal nature such as using the lord’s name in vain. It is wrong because in being members of a certain community – the church in this case – we have agreed not to do so. The covenant is made to our fellow members and it is really them that we offend, or feel we offend if they happened not to hear our utterance.
Confession is not enough, however, and the priest will make the offender say a series of prayers before he can be absolved of his sins. Similarly, in law a court does not accept a criminal’s admission of his crime as sufficient for absolution and the judge declares a fitting punishment for the offender. The punishment, just like the crime is decided upon within a social context. Speeding for instance is not naturally wrong. On the contrary, it is society that decides going over 100km/h on a certain road is an offense and that a fine of x amount of currency is the appropriate restitution.
But punishment does not only satisfy the demands of society with reference to the crime, it also satisfies the criminal’s longing for absolution. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel describes crime, in his famous and confusing phraseology, as the negation of the rules of society. Punishment subsequently becomes the negation of this first negation and the restoration of right. In other words, it is a way of returning society to its original position because without it the law decided upon by the community would become meaningless by way of being unenforceable.
At the same time, the punishment recognizes the criminal as a fellow human being and member of the community by applying to them the law to which they too have agreed; they are not treated as an animal to be restrained but as a human who’s participation in communal life and rule making is to be respected. In essence, one’s human freedom in both making and breaking the laws is acknowledged through the enforcement of punishment.
Turning oneself can then be seen as an attempt to return to the community from which our sin has removed us. And by accepting our punishment, we also escape the wilderness of a solitary moral life and return to our place in society. Like Socrates drinking the hemlock despite being offered a chance at escape. To submit to the law voluntarily is to accept one’s own freedom, a creative freedom only possible through a life in common with others.