Then They Shall Know That My Name Is...

An article wonders why we engage in punishment.
Traditionally, what reasons justify punishing wrongdoing, such as criminal behaviour?

(1) Retribution;
(2) Specific deterrence or incapacitation (i.e., deterring the wrongdoer);
(3) General deterrence (i.e., deterring third-parties);
(4) Rehabilitation; and,
(5) Restitution.

Modern intellectual discourse favours the latter 4 justifications. Retribution is seen by many criminologists as primitive, if not irrational. But may a society -- i.e., a society aiming to be a just or good society -- impose punishment absent some strong conception of retribution? I am not so sure. Here is why....
I quote this section in order to point out that this has not been the opinion of the enlightened only recently. Socrates is brought up against it by Protagoras:
If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong, only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished, and he who sees him punished, may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught. This is the notion of all who retaliate upon others either privately or publicly.
Rational punishment does not look to the past but to the future, Protagoras says. Indeed, since we cannot change the past, the only reason -- that is, the only kind of purpose to which rationality even might apply itself -- for punishment must be an eye toward the future. Deterrence is rational. Rehabilitation is rational. Mere retribution is bestial, so he argues.

I think that the opposite is true. It is the beast who is most likely to forgo retribution. They will act not to revenge past harms, but to avoid fresh ones. They might kill you if they think you are still dangerous and sense a momentary advantage. They might just as readily avoid you to keep from presenting you with a chance to hurt them again. They will not feel any duty of honor to avenge themselves, or their families, nor to repay you for the wrongs you have done.

Retribution is a higher, not a lower quality. This is orthodox, is it not? Vengeance is the divine quality, not a bestial one. Human beings are urged to mercy and kindness toward their enemies not because it is irrational or animal to punish past wrongs, but because they are not high enough to do it well and justly. Be patient, return kindness for cruelty, and you will heap hot coals on their heads.

How fitting, then, that it was a Vicar who provided the author cited at the top of this post with his reasons. But this is not a purely Judeo-Christian view. The Ancient Greeks thought this too, those of them who were poets instead of philosophers. They also thought that vengeance and retribution were divine. Hesiod even tells you her name.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Lewis, as is often the case, has thought and written about this. He echoes some things I have read in Chesterton, but I think Lewis went farther down this road.

Anonymous said...

From that last link:

"Themis is untranslatable. A gift of the gods and a mark of civilized existence, sometimes it means right custom, proper procedure, social order, and sometimes merely the will of the gods (as revealed by an omen, for example) with little of the idea of right. "

I am delighted to discover that "Themis" means "due process."

If you think of due process, one aspect of it is that punishment must somehow be related to the seriousness of the transgression. That, I submit, has something to do with "retribution," and not much at all with any of the other items.


MikeD said...

I will state for the record that I do not believe laws deter criminals. Period. Laws deter honest, law-abiding people from breaking them. But we weren't worried about those people in the first place. I have never decided not to murder someone because there are laws against it. I refrain from murdering, because murder is wrong. The fact that I could be punished by the law (assuming they discover I committed the crime, can prove that I did so beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of my peers, and fail to make any legal errors that allow me to escape prosecution during the investigation and trial) is incidental to the matter. Most criminals (as has been shown again and again in polls of prisons) did not believe they would even be caught. There is no deterrence in punishment. If there were, no one (or only the very most motivated) would ever break laws.

Laws are a system for society to punish wrongdoing by taking retribution on the behalf of victims. This (in theory) prevents blood feuds, and cycles of escalating retribution. It also allows the weak to have vengeance on the strong, because as strong as any individual may be, the collective of society is always stronger. We may have rationalized that we "rehabilitate" criminals (our recidivism rate puts the lie to that belief), or that we are discouraging criminals (the rate of incarceration puts the lie to that belief), or that prisoners are somehow paying restitution for their crimes (and yet they never pay anything at all to their victims, and we instead of speaking of their "debt to society"), but in the end, all of it is about retribution. And I for one have no trouble with that. The real ill comes from making laws to punish the truly victimless crimes. Who are we providing retribution to? What victim is gaining their vengeance (in a socially approved manner)?

Grim said...

Aristotle talks about it less in terms of punishment than in terms of positive motivation. A community needs people to obey its laws, so that the common goods of the community can be pursued in addition to the private goods the individuals will pursue in any case. How to ensure that they will do so?

Well, he says, some people are interested in the good itself. That's people like you're talking about: they won't do wrong because it's wrong. They will do right because it's right.

Others, he says, are interested in respect. They want to be respected, and shown respect. They will obey the law if doing so leads them to feel like the society holds them in high esteem, but they don't really care about the good or wrongness of the actions.

Still others, he adds, are interested in money. They will pursue what is profitable.

So to get people to obey the laws, he concludes, you should line up these factors. Make sure the laws point to the good. Offer public honors to those who are good examples of excelling in the spirit of these laws. Make those honors valuable -- property or monetary rewards.

Then, all three kinds of people will align in doing the good. The ones who want the good will obey the law because it is good. The ones who want respect will do it for the public honors they will receive. The ones who want money will do it for the financial rewards.

That's a kind of alignment of the political with the natural order -- that is, with the truths of both human nature and the moral laws as we understand them. It's a positive rather than a negative approach.

You can see how Themis still has her role, however. If your laws are improper -- if they are not right customs and proper procedures, but vicious customs and improper procedures -- you can still align respect and money with the laws, but not goodness. The destruction of your society will come about at the hands of its best citizens: the ones who will break the laws because the laws are wrong.

Ymar Sakar said...

Be patient, return kindness for cruelty, and you will heap hot coals on their heads.

So the Special Forces in Afghanistan should have returned kindness for cruelty, by being cruel to the kind and weak.

That's how your doctrine actually plays out, Grim, whether you like it or not.

Grim said...

That's St. Paul's doctrine as expressed in his letter to the Romans. If you don't like it, get in line: there are plenty before you who haven't liked him or what he has to say.

My doctrine turns on the correct application of Luke 22:36. The ones who refuse the sword don't get it right. But remember how Jesus chided Peter for slicing off the centurion's ear. (Mt. 26:51 or John 18:10)

You've learned to carry a sword, I gather. You still have a lot to learn about when and how to wield it.