VICTOR REPPERT SAID:
“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.