This post is a criticism and development of my previous two posts on penance.
February 16, 2015: Penance: Pain as a Scapegoat Which Carries Away Moral Evil
February 24, 2015:Penance: Guilt, Shame, Self-Loathing as Penitential Pain
In those posts, I interpreted penance as self inflicted pain to make up for and restore oneself after commission of a moral wrong. An act of masturbation was the example of an immoral act so that there would be no issues of compensating other people. Four dimensions of making up for and restoring were noted. Restitution was inflicting a pain to pay for an immorally attained satisfaction. This could be a simple fast of skipping a meal. Rehabilitation was inflicting pain so that by becoming accustomed to enduring dissatisfaction aesonould be less likely to subcumb to temptations to seek immoral satisfactions.Again a simple fast could be an example of penance. Deterrence was inflicting pain with a threat to inflict it again if we pursued the immoral satisfaction. Taking a cold shower with threats of subsequent cold showers is an example of a deterring penance. My focus was on the retributive dimension of penance. Retribution is the most difficult dimension for which to articulate a motivation even if in some people the need for it is strongly felt.
In retribution we inflict a pain to represent to ourselves our moral evil, i.e., breaking a moral law, as physical or mental damage. This physical or mental damage intentionally connected with the moral damage can be called punishment. Punishment is always a physical or mental pain. Punishment is imposed for moral reasons but the punishment itself is factual (empirical) not moral. Penance is self-inflicted punishment.With recovery from the connected factual damage the moral damage is cleansed or healed. The factual damage becomes a “scapegoat” which carries away the moral damage.
Perhaps my account of retributive penance accounts for why some, or even many, people do punish themselves for immoral behavior with a hard to articulate sense that it makes them clean or healthy again. But an account of why some people punish themselves does not justify their doing so and certainly does not give support to a claim that this type of retributive punishment is what we ought to do.. Now my goal is to make a case that we ought to perform retributive penance.
Why ought connect factual damage with moral damage by inflicting factual damage on an offender because of his moral damage? If we do not accept a prescription for conduct as a command coming from ourselves in which we both think and feel that factual damage be imposed on violators we do not accept it as a moral law. Thinking and feeling that factual damage be imposed on violators simply because they violated a moral law is moral wrath. Genuine acceptance of what we think ought to be requires internalizing the prescription. Internalizing a prescription requires feeling that it ought to be followed because what it commands is right. This feeling that it ought to be followed because it is right has as a complementary feeling a sense that a violator ought to be damaged in some factual way simply because he did not act as he ought. Acting on this moral wrath is retribution. In retribution we do not seek to accomplish anything by imposition of the damage beyond striking back after violation of the law. To be sure, as noted above, in inflicting damage after a violation, we may hope to accomplish restitution, rehabilitation and deterrence. But retribution is simply to express the obligation to react negatively to violations of a moral law we have internalized, viz., genuinely accepted.
Penance, then, is retribution inflicted on ourselves for our own violations of morality. As the wounds from our self-inflicted moral wrath heal, we often have a sense of being healed or cleansed.
My thoughts about penance, forgiveness etc., come from my emphasis on sexual immorality as producing moral harm in my book Confronting Sexual Nihilism .
My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. The publisher’s listed price is $26.99. Printed copies can be purchased here by credit card for $12.99, plus $3.71 for shipping and handling.
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