Saturday, October 10, 2009

Remission, redemption, & punishment


“Even with the most serious serial killers, we have not merely practical limits, but moral limits on the degree to which we may punish.”

i) The only moral limit is the principle that a punishment should not exceed the crime.

ii) That, however, doesn’t mean the punishment should be limited. Rather, it means the punishment should be limited in case the culpability of the crime is limited.

Yes, there are degrees of punishment commensurate with the crime. But that doesn’t prejudge the gravity of the crime. Hence, that doesn’t prejudge the severity of the punishment.

If there is no limit to the degree of culpability, then there is no limit to the degree of punishment.

iii) Put another way, the moral limitation is not a chronological limitation. Rather, it’s an abstract principle of proportionality. It doesn’t tell you in advance where, if at all, the cut-off point may lie.

iv) Since moreover, you’re so fond of intuition, I don’t share your intuitive confidence in the moral limits on the degree to which (to take one example) the killer of Jessica Lunsford–(the 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped, and buried alive) deserves to suffer for his crimes.

“Yes, we may believe that we ought to execute a Dahmer or a Himmler, but we may not torture them, in spite of the tortures that they inflicted on others.”

i) If you’re arguing on the basis of moral intuition, then you can’t take that for granted.

ii) It also depends on the “we.” Intuitively speaking, I don’t intuit a moral prohibition against the victims of Dahmer or Himmler inflicting pain on their killers.

iii) However, I have no reason to define severe punishment in terms of torture.

Punishment can take various forms. A lost opportunity can be punitive. To be denied a one-time offer to do something you always wanted to do can be punitive. You forever regret the lost opportunity. Rue what you missed

Likewise, despair can be punitive. To live with the realization that things will never improve, never get any better for you, can also be punitive. And that doesn’t mean your situation has to be as painful as possible.

“But suppose we had all of the resources of the Catholic Purgatory. We have all the time we need to inflict whatever punishment the action deserves. Let's assume we have a repentant sinner, someone who is not reoffending. Let's say we have Hitler or Stalin, so we have worst of evil deeds to be punished. Let's say we make Hitler feel the suffering of every Jew he sent to the camps. At some point, maybe in 1000, or 10,000 years, isn't there a point at which it makes sense to say ‘OK, justice has been served, he's suffered enough, the punishment has gone far enough.’ The evil deeds, at least from the perspective of the justice system, are finite in the harm they do. If we think that these actions harmed others to a finite degree, then it looks as if there has to be some finite degree to which the punishment has to be calibrated. Whereas in hell, you've no less days to roast away than when you first begun. We can't inflict on Hitler all of the pain he inflicted on others, but if we could, surely it would have to come to an end sometime.”

I don’t share you’re unspoken assumption. You seem to assume that punishment is exculpatory. That punishment remits guilt. The offender has “paid his debt to society.”

I see no reason to accept that assumption. The only thing which can absolve the offender is redemption, not punishment.

The fact that an offender is getting his just deserts doesn’t mean his just deserts are exculpatory.

1 comment:

  1. Well, you have two types of offenses in the criminal law. You have offense where the penalty is set and is clearly finite. These range from jaywalking, to which a fine is attached, to serious felonies that require long prison terms. But there is a boundary on how much we think we should punish. When the time is done, the prisoner gets out. We do not inflict a hell-like punishment on such people, there is a proportionality that is observed and imposes an upper limit on the offense.

    With some other offenses, we either imprison for life or execute the prisoner. In fact, in some cases we choose life in prison over execution, which in one sense limits the penalty. There is something we could take away that we don't take away.

    Then there are some crimes that require a maximum penalty, and notice Grayling didn't suggest that what Polanski did deserved that kind of penalty. But there are offenses of that sort, where depending on whether we use the death penalty or not, we give either life in prison or we execute.

    In the case of Dahmer, we give him less than what we know he deserves, in the sense that some of us think that he should suffer the same kind of pain that he inflicted on his victims, but we think we as a society shouldn't brutalize ourselves in the process, and so we observe some self-imposed limits. But that wouldn't be something God would have to worry about.

    But with these capital offense we can either believe that the penalty the state has the right to inflict is unlimited, or it is limited but limited by the fact that the prisoner has only one life, and only so much time, to give up. The criminal justice system doesn't answer that question for us.

    From the perspective of the criminal justice system, punishment exculpates in all cases except capital cases. So you would have to tell me where the threshold is breached between limited punishment and unlimited from the standpoint of the criminal justice system.

    But hell is not only for capital criminals. So even if there are some offenses which deserve everlasting punishment from the point of view of the criminal justice system, I have surely done nothing worthy of that kind of punishment. Yet, presumably, I have done something worthy of hell, and so have you. Most people have not committed crimes worthy or unlimited judicial punishment. So your defense of hell is of limited value even if it works.

    Further, you are making the argument from intuition. You are using the remarks of an atheist philosopher to justify your position on hell. So you have to make your case to me using the criminal justice system, and Grayling's remarks about it, as an intuition pump. This is strategically problematic. The criminal justic system might be compatible with your interpretation, but only in capital cases (like the Lunsford case you mentioned), and even there it doesn't prove your position, which is what you were trying to do by presenting the argument.

    There are better arguments for the claim that damnation is deserved. But these trade on instances where the analogy with criminal punishment breaks down.