Much of the talk around here is about justice. Not surprising, a lot of what is wrong in this vale of tears is injustice. What has me scratching my head is that not only do liberals not seem to get that you don’t pursue justice in order to get some other thing, justice is itself that thing we pursue for its own sake, at least in part (it does not encompass the entire common good), but also some conservatives seem to not get it either.
Here is what I am seeing: people are asking whether punishing evil-doers is good, and if so, why. In the course of this, they seem to consider the notion that not all punishing is for purposes of remediation/rehabilitation, nor for deterrence of others, nor for simple restraint of the evil-doer himself (and thus safety for others). And then they go on to ask, of the remaining important purpose – retribution - what good does THAT serve.
And my response is, roughly: … ! … ?
What do you mean, “what good does that serve?” What good does pleasure serve? What good does joy serve? What good does friendship serve? The good CONSISTS in these, and in justice too.
“Oh,” say they, and then “but then why do you say that punishing evil-doers brings about a good? Isn’t it good to do good, and evil to do evil? Punishing is, apparently, doing evil. That’s the point, you do evil to someone in return for their doing evil.”
And if we pursue this issue, the problem appears to come around to basically not agreeing on what justice actually is. In my dictionary, justice is giving to each his due, (call this proposition J1). And by definition, what is due to an evil-doer is an evil.
If I have the essence of this matter right, retribution (i.e. imposing an evil as punishment for doing wrong) needs no more explanatory rationale than rewarding good behavior with a good does (call this truth J2). And I don’t think the latter, J2, can really be accounted for in more basic, closer-to-principle terms. It is a primary truth of the moral order: the “giving his due” to a person who does rightly consists of giving him good that is condign to his good acts. If you don’t “get” that, I am not sure there is a basis for it that shows that it is true, or shows why it is true that isn’t simply circular. Or complexly circular, but still circular nonetheless. Perhaps pointing to the fact that “the good” is convertible with “the true” and with being helps, but at best it doesn’t actually prove the point, all it does it show the conformity of the truth J2 with the rest of the moral foundation of the universe, it doesn’t set up a deductive reach into a conclusion of J2.
And, I think, the obverse statement that an evil-doer is due an evil (call this J3) is equally immediate a truth. Maybe, just possibly, the negative form “comes from” the positive form J2 in some sense, but that’s not my impression. It seems to me that J2 and J3 stand alongside each other as coordinate truths, and each conforms to the other but neither is primary with respect to the other. And here is support that they are co-equal in standing:
[I]t becomes evident that the property of merit can be found only in works that are positively good, whilst bad works, whether they benefit or injure a third party, contain nothing but demerit (demeritum) and consequently deserve punishment. Thus the good workman certainly deserves the reward of his labour, and the thief deserves the punishment of his crime. From this it naturally follows that merit and reward, demerit and punishment, bear to each other the relation of deed and return; they are correlative terms of which one postulates the other. Reward is due to merit, and the reward is in proportion to the merit. [Catholic Encyclopedia]
But what of the position that this mis-aligns what is right and good, that evil is not “due” anyone? First of all, is there anyone who actually holds this opinion? Yes, here is a fine example, putting the matter as clearly and forthrightly as we could wish:
In defending some desert-based justifications, I will be departing from positions I have taken in earlier work…First, because I identified moral desert with the idea, which I regard as morally repugnant, that it is good that people who have done wrong should suffer, I was inclined to reject the idea of desert altogether. Second, interpreting and commenting on Rawls’ views on distributive justice, I endorsed the idea that the only sense of desert relevant to questions of distributive is what I called institutional desert – the sense in which a person deserves a form of treatment if a justified institution specifies that he or she should be treated in that way. I expressed skepticism about the desert in a “pre-institutional” sense that is independent of what particular institutions require and can serve as a basis for assessing whether institutions are just…It might be said that wrongdoers cannot complain of the hard treatment involved in punishment because these forms of treatment are deserved: given what a wrongdoer has done, these forms of treatment are appropriate, and even good things to occur, in part because wrongdoers have reason to dislike them. And, it might be added, this is so only if these wrongdoers could have avoided doing what they did. Such a claim seems to me to be quite false. It is never a good thing, morally speaking, for anyone to suffer, no matter what they have done, and this is so quite independent of whether those who might be made to suffer have free will or not.
I submit, this is another example of someone who has become a silly-clever. They have talked themselves right out of common sense, simple and ultimately TRUE notions, by way of overthinking, over-sophistication. Every 6-year-old knows that doing ill deserves receiving ill treatment. It is only by being “educated” out of this common sense that a person can come to think that their primitive, natural sense that doing evil is due hard treatment was in error. And this “educating” gets it wrong.
How does it go wrong? I guess this is the way it goes: if they are Christian, they note that Christ calls us to turn the other cheek, to forgive those who sin against us, to “do good to those who persecute you.” Thus, they argue, good should be done to everyone, evil should be done to nobody. If not Christian, they simply note that doing evil is evil, and it doesn’t matter that “to evildoers” gets in the middle of “doing evil” as a qualifier thereof.
Both of these arguments get it wrong. As regards the first, the Christian here mistakes mercy with justice. God forgives us out of mercy. We are called to be god-like and forgive others out of mercy also. This is not justice. That forgiving my persecutor is right for me, it does not mean he has a right to receive forgiveness. It is in fact impossible for the evildoer to have a “right” to mercy, mercy is inherently over and above what is rightfully his. Insofar as we owe forgiveness at all, it is to God that we owe it that we forgive His creature our persecutor. (We forgive for God’s sake, not for the sake of the merit of the evildoer. Illustratively: we are happy to meet and welcome a friend of our friend, not because this new acquaintance is _already_ our friend, but on account of our love for our own friend: we “owe” it to our friend to welcome his friends, we don’t owe it to this new person.)
For the second: there is an equivocation between different uses of evil. On the one hand, “an evil” in the sense of suffering an evil refers to something of the physical, emotional, or psychological, or social order. Suffering an evil means suffering something that opposes goods of the physical, emotional, psychological or social sorts: physical pain instead of pleasure, sadness instead of joy, anxiety instead of peace, or shame instead of honor. (For brevity I will refer to all of these as evils of the physical order even though we will keep in mind all of these). None of these are evils of the moral order. DOING EVIL in the sense of committing a wrong act (without the word “an”) best refers to doing something evil as of the moral order: doing an act contrary to rightness, to righteousness, to virtue, to holiness. A sin, an offense against right action. The obfuscating equivocation comes in not distinguishing between evils of the two orders, especially in the phrase “do evil” as in the sentence “Do evil to the evildoer.” The “evil” could be construed either as an evil act (an act wrong morally) or to do an act that causes an evil of the physical order.
So, one of the ways to arrive at this position that defies the common sense of 6-year-olds is to conflate two distinct senses of “do evil.” “Doing evil” of the physical order is not doing moral evil, and thus it is not simply true that “it is evil (morally wrong) to do (physical) evil to evildoers.” They just don’t mean the same thing. Parenthetically, this conflation makes it virtually impossible to make sense of the natural world as a place of good taken all together: all over creation, things which are events of physical good for one being are physical ills to another being: a lion eating a lamb is good for the lion, ill indeed for the lamb. Humans are not apart from this issue: my overcoming an infection means millions of bacteria dying. Even for humans acting with respect to other humans: my eating this food here means there is less food available for someone else.
More sophisticatedly, though, the highly educated sophist will object that no, what they really deny is the possibility that “to do an evil of the physical order” can be a morally good act, that intentionally acting precisely to cause (physical) ill to someone is morally evil, can never be a good action. My response to this is twofold: First, the argument from the authority of Scripture: throughout the Bible, we are told in perfectly clear terms that God will punish evildoers. (And this also works to answer the Christian proposer above.) From Genesis right through to Revelation, we are warned and shown God’s punishing evildoers. Though it is true that some of this punishing is medicinal, the punishment that God promises as everlasting fire cannot be explained away like that. No, if the Bible can be trusted, we are certain that God punishes evildoers with retributive hard treatment. And since everything that God does is upright, holy, it cannot in principle offend against right doing to do physical evils to evildoers.
Secondarily, perhaps by way of a less authority-based argument: The order of justice is the order of the universe (cf. St. Thomas, Prima Pars Q 21). It is impossible that a universe that harbors moral rightness, and thus justice in the form of returning (physical) good for good (action), would not also be oriented so as to harbor justice in the form of returning something as the opposite for evil action. Generally, those who argue against the notion that doing an evil of the physical order as response to wrongdoing can be a morally upright act must eventually discredit the real possibility of a moral aspect to the universe at all – all REAL evils eventually reduce to evils of the physical order. That is (so they imply) the very reason we credit evil actions to be evil “morally” is precisely because we credit them with causing evil of the physical order. And (much like the out-and-out materialists) they eventually deny the real distinction between the two.
It seems this position must deny natural law, and deny God as the author of the universe. For, if an action is disordered from the natural law even though it happens not to cause any evil in the physical order, it is wrong and (de)merits ill treatment anyway. If you set out to kill someone, but before you commit any overt public act of violence you get obstructed so that you simply cannot carry out the act you intend (you miss the train, for example), according to the natural law your act is worthy of being punished, even though nothing you did achieved any of the evil you set out to do. Whereas (say these objectors) there can be no reason whatsoever for you being treated hardly in this situation, since you caused no ill in actuality. More still, this position denies that God sees all your intentions and will reward them accordingly, whether you have the capacity to act on them outwardly or not. Condemning “even if you look with lust at a woman” would be, for them, an empty notion, devoid of real evil because it harbors nothing evil in the physical order (except accidental possibilities, such as that it MIGHT make you more prone to do something “evil” later).
It is not my purpose here to defend natural law, the moral reality in the universe, or God’s place in finally adjudicating and rewarding all. Of course they can be defended. My point here is that knowing that justice means doing good to those who merit it does not require a proof based on things more certain, more basic, more rooted than what we already know just by knowing “justice” and “doing good”. And the negative correlative is, also, an immediately grasped truth rather than a conclusion by argument from prior truths. And those who obfuscate these truths and convince themselves of the contrary are doing violence to their own minds thereby – or are having violence done to them by their teachers. Those who are conservative and generally uphold the natural moral law but who mistakenly oppose, or just actively doubt the inherent rightness of retribution, have been hoodwinked by the outwardly sophisticated position against it. That position springs out of a perspective that (usually) opposes natural law or even morality in human affairs, or (sometimes) at least reductively belabors them to the point of evanescence.