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The ethics of punishment

7 September 2009
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An anonymous commentor on Bishop Alan’s Blog: Mercy seasons justice? asks:

Is justice not about rewards and punishments at all but about ‘making things right’ and restoring relationships? Or is it both? Am I confusing conflicting views on Christian justice or is there a broad consensus? What is your view?

What happened to make punishment, which was important for folks like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin, a less central, if not a totally rejected aspect of Christian justice?

And the question reminded me of a book I read more than 40 years ago. I was at a theological college and was asked to lead a seminar on the ethics of punishment. I had not thought much about the question much. I had done some elementary criminology in Sociology I at university, and had had to write an essay on “The causes of adult crime”. I’d done some courses on theological ethics, but none of them so much as mentioned the ethics of punishment.

The warden of the college recommended a book on the topic, The ethics of punishment by W.H. Moberly, so I took it out of the library and skimmed through it. I can’t remember much of his arguments. I do remember that he discussed punishment as vengeance, and punishment as rehabilitation, and dismissed them, and said something about punishment being primarily symbolic.

The idea he gave me (and I can’t blame him for it, since it was my idea, sparked off by his book) was that punishment is a sacrament.

In the Anglican catechism in those days (it may be different now), a sacrament was defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

And so I got the idea that punishment was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

If this is what punishment is, then perhaps the most effective form of punishment is rough music or charivari, or perhaps the pillory or the stocks.

The problem with this is that while the element of public disgrace is there, there is also an element of mob justice. If someone offends against society’s values, then society can take its revenge. But what if society’s values are wrong? One can then end up with things like Kristallnacht.

In Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and punishment the protagonist, Raskolnikov, commits a murder primarily because he feels himself to be a superior individual. He sees himself as a heroic figure, like Napoleon, and a cut above ordinary humanity, and so justifies himself in his thought of taking the life of another person, whom he regards as worthless. At least so runs his twisted reasoning. By the end of the novel, however, he has come to repentance. He sees that compassion trumps this kind of reasoning.

But if society treated Raskolnikov as Raskolnikov had treated his victim, would not society have been guilty of the same kind of twisted reasoning as that used by Raskolnikov to justify his crime? So the idea that punishment is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace doesn’t necessarily make punishment “ethical”.

Raskolnikov is led to commit murder because of his individualistic philosophy. But if we replace the individual by the collective, we get pogroms, lynching and the like. Neither has room for compassion.

And so I think of examples of repentance like that of Adriaan Vlok symbolically washing the feet of his victims or their representatives.

That is punishment, self-inflicted, as a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

But really, I’m just as confused about the ethics of punishment now as I was forty years ago.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 September 2009 6:50 pm

    Have you read this yet– the whole short book is available free online. Seems like “rough music” in the internet age, as violators of community standards are punished by the broadcasting of misdeeds caught on cell phone cameras and the like……

    • 8 September 2009 6:54 am

      That looks interesting – must read it when I have time!

  2. 8 September 2009 7:06 am

    This is an interesting subject and one I care to discuss. The difference for me is with the intent.

    Do you intend to help a person become better in their character and conduct, and thus give discipline, or do you seek to control a bad behaviour, which is to punish?

    The following is from a quick google search and perhaps gives better examples:

    • 8 September 2009 7:34 pm

      Do you intend to help a person become better in their character and conduct, and thus give discipline, or do you seek to control a bad behaviour, which is to punish?

      To me, though, that raises another question: To what degree do we have the responsibility and authority to do this to another person, especially another person who has reached the age of majority?

      Disciplining your child makes sense. You are responsible for your children. It’s your job to guide them so that they grow up into mature and ethical adults. But another adult? Especially one that’s not related to you?

  3. Clayton permalink
    27 September 2009 8:04 pm

    I’m the original poster of these questions. Thank you so much for taking them seriously and engaging with them.

    I think I’ve found my answers in the imaginative works and preaching of George MacDonald, especially his sermon “Justice” in Unspoken Sermons.

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