Category Archives: ethics
They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it.
–Confucius, The Analects, Chapter VI; courtesy of Wikiquote.
Last time we discussed whether infinite retribution for even the worst of finite sins is just. Our answer to that was, “No.” Here, though, we’ll look at a more fundamental question: Is retributive justice itself truly just?
In the first post of this discussion, we looked at the various types of punishments for transgression, and what purposes they try to achieve:
- Restitution seeks to redress a loss. For example, if you steal from me, you must give the money back.
- Prevention or containment seeks to prevent a crime from happening again. If you’re in jail for bank robbery, you can’t rob another bank (at least until you are released).
- Deterrence seeks to prevent crime in the first place. If I know I’ll go to jail for bank robbery, I’ll be less inclined to rob banks to begin with.
- Rehabilitation seeks to retrain or reform a criminal so that he or she can become, in the words of the cliche, a “productive member of society” who will not be inclined to be a repeat offender.
- Retribution is the notion that certain responses are inherently appropriate for certain offenses.
All of these models of punishment are more or less intuitively obvious. Certainly a criminal should make restitution for his or her crime; prevention and deterrence are fairly obvious motivations for punishment; and while rehabilitation had been controversial for various reasons, it still is fairly logical on its face. Retribution–that a person deserves a certain punishment because of what he or she did–is, however, more mysterious. It seems to be uncontroversial and intuitively right; and yet it seems to defy easy analysis.
Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun! 🙂
Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined). In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following: restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:
Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform. It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life. Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state. In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered. If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me. Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either. Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow. However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose. The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil. Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.
Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution. If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose. Thus, in looking at this issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”
Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions. The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?” This is the question I’ll discuss in this post. However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit: “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?” That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.
I’ve mentioned the term “Rectification of Names” before. The term in Chinese is 正名, or in Pinyin transcription, Zhèngmíng. This is a very important concept in Confucius’s philosophy, and in my view it is universally applicable. The basic idea is that one has to have a clear understanding of the world as it is and to use this understanding to call things what they actually are. In short, we are enjoined to be honest, and in order to be fully honest we must not only not lie, but we must describe things as they really are. To this end, we must dispense with cant, jargon, obfuscation, propaganda, and so on. We should call things what they are because only in so doing can we understand how we should behave in any given situation. The paragraph below gives a succinct description from the Analects (courtesy of here):
A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge
Rectification of Names is a Confucian term, but the idea behind it, as I said, is universal. One of the greatest proponents of this concept, though he didn’t use that term, was the great Greek philosopher Socrates. The “Gadfly”, as he called himself, was so important in the history of Western philosophy that all Greek philosophers prior to him are lumped together as the “Pre-Socratics”. Socrates himself never wrote anything–our knowledge of him comes from his portrayals in the dialogues of his greatest disciple, Plato. In his earlier dialogues, Plato is considered to have portrayed Socrates fairly accurately, though later on he uses him more as a mouthpiece. In any case, I want to focus here on Socrates’ discussion of what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, named after the dialogue in which it is discussed.
Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace.
Better than a hundred hollow lines
Is one line of the law, bringing peace.
–Gautama Buddha in “The Thousands” from the Dhammapada as translated by Thomas Byrom; courtesy Wikiquote
All true morality, inward and outward, is comprehended in love, for love is the foundation of all the commandments. All outward morality must be built upon this basis, not on self-interest. As long as man loves something else than God, or outside God, he is not free, because he has not love. Therefore there is no inner freedom which does not manifest itself in works of love. True freedom is the government of nature in and outside man through God; freedom is essential existence unaffected by creatures. But love often begins with fear; fear is the approach to love: fear is like the awl which draws the shoemaker’s thread through the leather.
–Meister Eckhart, Sermon VII : “Outward and Inward Morality”; courtesy Wikiquote