The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that ‘if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression’, human rights should be protected by the rule of law. That just laws which uphold human rights are the necessary foundation of peace and security would be denied only by closed minds which interpret peace as the silence of all opposition and security as the assurance of their own power.
–Aung San Suu Kyi, “In Quest of Democracy” (1991); 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.
Back here, having addressed arguments against universalism that miss the point, I said,
In the next two posts in this series I’ll look at arguments for Hell that at least address the issue. I’m dividing them into the more traditional arguments that God directly punishes sinners, who deserve what they get, and more modern arguments that take a more psychological approach and locate Hell in the viewpoint of the damned themselves.
Thus, I want now to look at the former of these notions: that God directly punishes sinners, with the corollaries that they deserve that punishment; or to put it another way, that eternal damnation is in fact just. In order to do this, before even discussing “just”, we have to begin by unpacking the meaning of “punishment” itself. After all, if a person has transgressed moral law, there are several different responses society can have, all loosely lumped under “punishment”. These responses are distinct, though, and are very different in what they attempt to achieve. First, there is the notion of restoration or restitution.