Underwood and Punishment
Listening to a popular voice discuss theories of punishment lately, I noticed an interesting interplay between retributive versus deterrent theories. I’m talking, of course, about the country/pop singer Carrie Underwood.
Underwood’s latest all-over-the-radio crossover hit, Before He Cheats, discusses her own somewhat violent reactions to an unnamed Low Down Cheatin’ No Good Scoundrel. Of particular interest is how she connects her reaction to a particular theory of punishment. She sings:
I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,
Carved my name into his leather seats,
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
Slashed a hole in all 4 tires —
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.
As any criminal law theorists can attest, there are many different theories of punishment. Punishment may be intended to be retributive — that is, a deserved punishment, proportionate to the offense, based on past actions. Retributive justice is backward-looking — that is, it focuses on past acts, not on likely future acts — and it is often couched in terms of merit or dessert. Or, punishment may be consequentialist — intended to bring about good future consequences. Deterrence — preventing future bad acts — is one type of consequentialist rationale. Consequentialist approaches are forward-looking rather than backward-looking — intended to influence future acts, not punish past acts. To oversimplify, the difference is between “I punish you because it would be wrong for your bad acts to go unpunished” (retributive) versus “I punish you to influence your future decisions” (deterrent version of consequentialist). (And of course, many times, arguments for punishment will combine aspects of retributive justice, deterrence, and other ideas.)
Underwood explicitly states that her actions were motivated by a deterrrent theory of punishment. She has vandalized his car, and the reason that she did so is to deter future bad behavior: “Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.” This is a clearly deterrent approach. The stated reason why she has treated the car so rudely is to deter future bad behavior. However, Underwood’s stated deterrence rationale is unconvincing.
As she notes in her song, she has already ended her relationship with the No Good Scoundrel in question. Thus, it is questionable what sort of deterrent message he is supposed to receive from her actions. It can’t be “don’t cheat on Carrie, or else she will destroy my car” (which would be a message of deterrence) — because he is no longer linked to Carrie.
Underwood seems to suggest that a broader deterrent message has been sent — “don’t cheat on a woman in general, or she might destroy your car.” The problem with this approach is that deterrence must be credible in order to be effective. Underwood’s actions were relatively unusual in nature, and thus unlikely to provide much in the way of future deterrence. There is also the question of why Underwood would risk criminal prosecution herself to engage in an act intended solely to reform a No Good Scoundrel who she is no longer dating.
The more likely motivation, really, is retributive — Underwood is simply angry with the No Good Scoundrel in question, and her mistreatment of his pretty-little-souped-up-four-wheel-drive is intended to express that anger. Cast as retribution, her actions are understandable. Her mockery of the No Good Scoundrel also supports this idea.
This leaves us to explain Underwood’s desire to couch her actions as deterrent. Instead of simply saying, “I trashed your car because you treated me badly and I disliked that treatment,” — a perfectly respectable chain of logic — she offers the more convoluted and less convincing, “I trashed your car because I hope to deter future bad behavior.” Apparently, deterrent actions are more respectable than retributive actions, and so Underwood chooses to frame her acts as deterrent, despite the implausibility of the label. What’s really odd is that all of this is taking place in the context of a country song. If you can’t be retributive in a country song, where can you be retributive?
I really hope that this post deters future misapplications of theories of punishment in country songs.