Monthly Archives: July 2019

The Virtue of Taking Retribution

In this post I use my theory of moral harm to understand and appreciate the thinking behind retributive punishment. This is not to say that I show that the thinking behind retributive punishment is precise. It’s radically imprecise!

What is my theory of moral harm? My theory is that moral harm is the moral judgment, concomitant with a moral law, that harm OUGHT to result from violation of the moral law. See Moral Harm Is a Moral Judgment.

However, nothing in the moral law tells us what the harm ought to be. Moral laws are categorical imperatives: Don’t do it! Their “tone” conveys the message “Don’t do it or else!” The what else is unspecified harm – infinite harm in the sense of unlimited. For the functioning of moral thinking the threat, perhaps promise, of unspecified harm gives authority to moral laws. There is no negotiating with moral laws.

If we regard moral thinking merely as the evolution of one way, amongst other ways, of thinking and feeling to inhibit specific behaviors, it is not surprising that the sanction for violation of moral laws is infinite – unlimited. The trouble arises when we take it upon ourselves to apply the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this imprecision of the harm that ought to result leads us to great vices in moral practice. Some have taught doctrines about infinite torment by some non-human agency for small infractions, history and current events tell us of cruel and unusual punishments and terribly destructive vengeance has been allegedly justified as retribution.

Shortly we will appreciate use of the term “vices,” in an Aristotelian sense, to label the horrible excesses and sometimes shameful laxity in proposing and applying punishment.

The thinking behind retribution is radically imprecise and always requires moral reflection to justify a punishment. The radical imprecision rests on the fact, just noted, that the moral judgment that harm ought to result from violation of the law does not specify how much harm ought to come about. The imprecision is radical because it is at the roots of every moral judgment. From the tautology “The harm that ought to be a consequence of the violation is harm that ought to be” we formulate the dictum “The punishment ought to fit the crime.” Not surprisingly for a dictum formulating a tautology,the dictum “the punishment ought to fit the crime” tells us little. It only tells us that we are supposed to think morally, in some way or other, about what harm we ought to inflict if we take it upon ourselves to bring about the harm that ought to occur if a moral law is violated.

Punishment is intentional infliction of harm on people because a law has been violated. I restrict attention to laws which are also moral laws. This restriction includes the large overlap of morality and legality. Many of the laws of a community express the morality of a community Prohibitions against killing, cheating, beating, sexual misconduct etc., reinforce the moral laws. The point of this restriction is to set aside the complex discussion of the differences between morality and legality. I want to focus on interpreting thought about what ought to be done when a law is violated; be it legal or moral.

This harm which ought to result from the mere violation of a moral law is retribution for violating the law. Intentional infliction of this harm is retributive punishment.

To admit that the infliction of punishment for violations of rules is radically imprecise is not to admit that the proper amount cannot be decided upon. It is only to admit that it cannot be decided by further moral rules. So, if we say that meting out justice is totally a matter of following rules, application of punishment is not exactly meting out justice.

What justifies inflicting harm because a moral law has been violated? The moral law which has been violated provides the fundamental justification for inflicting harm because of its violation. For, on my theory, part of the moral law specifies that harm ought to result from its violation. Further moral thought is needed to decide who ought to inflict the harm, on whom ought it be inflicted and how much harm ought to be inflicted. But what is this further moral thought? Ultimately, it is not finding more rules.

Answering the questions about who inflicts punishment and on whom to inflict it is for social and political philosophy. Over the centuries many with the competence have confronted these questions. For simplicity, I consider cases where it has been morally decided that there is a group authorized to inflict the harm, it has been decided that the harm ought to be inflicted on the violators of the law ought and somehow the harm ought to “fit the crime.” To say that an infliction of harm fits the violation is really only to say that the harm is the proper retribution. I do not think that we have ever adequately decided what it is for a punishment to fit the crime.

I propose that the only moral justification for punishment is retribution. The other rationalizations for inflicting harm on violators are morally justified only in so far as they are part of retribution. Consider the others.

1. A violator may be restrained for many years to prevent him from committing more violations. However, the pain of the number of years of restrain ought to be neither more nor less than the harm which ought to follow upon violation of the law.

2. Pain, whipping, imprisonment, putting in stocks, etc., may be inflicted upon a violator to deter others from violating the law. Again, however, the pain to deter others and the violator from future violations ought be neither more nor less than the harm that morality requires for its violation.

3. The group authorized to punish may require a violator to make restitution for goods stolen, or more generally restoration for a condition destroyed by the violation. Making restitution and restoration are painful in so far as they require effort or loss of violator’s property. Now the requirement to make restitution or restoration are not punishment. So, restoration is not a justification for punishment. However, the authorities many consider whether the pain of restoration is some, or even all, of the, harm required by the violation.

So the moral way to mete out punishment is to aim at having the violator suffer the right retribution which as just noted, may involve attaining other goals. But moral laws do not tell us what is the right retribution. So, in meting out punishment we must recognize in moral thinking a type of moral thought different from following rules. I call this Aristotelian virtue thinking because the goal is to reach a mean: not too little and not too much harm. Punishing requires Aristotelian virtue thinking. Wise judges have the virtue of discerning what is the proper amount of punishment. Judges who are too lenient or too harsh have a vice.

Now as noted above, having the virtue of meting out proper punishments is not simply a matter of justice. I suggest that we have a moral imperative to show mercy. This mercy imperative authorizes modifying thought about “what is due” when finding the punishment which is neither too much nor too little.

With introduction of “mercy” into a discussion of the network of concepts in our ways of thinking morally about punishment, this post threatens to become a treatise on punishment. So, I stop here and repeat my goal for writing this post.

My goal has been to show that my notion of moral harm makes sense of the notion of retribution and the notion of retribution is essential for making sense of punishment although it does not specify what the punishment ought to be.

The Pain of Moral Harm

Theoretically moral harm is not actually harmful but actually moral harm is harmful! What?

In a previous post, I conceded that moral harm is not actual harm. Moral harm is the moral judgment that actual natural harm OUGHT to result from breaking a moral law. For instance, the moral harm of a murder is the thought, concomitant with judgment that murder is immoral, that bad things ought to a result from this crime. Separable from this judgment that bad things ought to happen might be moral judgments that the bad things be the death of the killer.

The moral judgment that harm ought to result can be a factor in causing all sorts of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Some are of these thoughts and feelings are guilt, shame, anxiety, anger and hatred. These unpleasant thoughts and feelings can be classed as natural harms. They are painful. But they are the causal effects of moral harm; not the moral harm itself. Moral harm can help cause actual natural harm because moral harm by virtue of being a moral judgment is a thought. Thoughts have causal consequences. The pains of moral harm can be spread beyond the perpetrator of an immoral act. For instance, a murderer may suffer guilt and fear while witnesses suffer anger.

Of course, another type of natural harm connected with moral harm are the bad consequences which ought to happen as a result of breaking a moral law, do happen. The most obvious cases of this are when society punishes a perpetrator. A subsequent post will focus on moral harm and punishment. Here the point is that the actual harm that so to speak is required by moral harm is not the moral harm.

I am updating my post with the following quotation from a review in July 18, 2019 edition of the New York Review of Books. It illustrates that feeling moral harm is painful, that moral harm is diffuse by not condemning only the perpetrator, and is connected with the religious notion of atonement. Orlando Figes is reviewing novels of the Russian writer Sergei Lebedev. Figes writes on p.42 “In Lebedev’s fiction, the desire to confront the Soviet past comes with a sense of being burdened by its crimes. In Oblivion, the narrator travels to the island because he wants to atone for the sins of Grandfather II, whose blood runs in his on veins.”

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. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.

To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.

Moral Harm is a Moral Judgment

In this post I make and support a claim that moral harm of an act is the moral judgment that harm ought to be a consequence of the act.

In my book*, I introduce a notion of moral harm to challenge Steven Pinker’s proposed counter example to an absolute prohibition against incest. For simplicity’s sake suppose the moral law in question commands: A brother and sister ought never engage in coitus with one another. Pinker asks us to imagine a scenario in which a brother and sister in their early twenties practice recreational coitus. He names them Julie and Mark. In the imagine scenario the couple takes such elaborate contraceptive measures that pregnancy is physically impossible. We are also asked to imagine that these siblings are psychologically disposed never to feel regret or guilt about this act. They will only remember it as some fun. And no one else will ever know about it.

Pinker alleges from anecdotal evidence that people cannot answer the question: What is wrong with what Julie and Mark did? Presumably his respondents understood the question as: What harm resulted from Julie’s and Mark’s recreational coitus. In the imaginary scenario it seems that every possible harm has been imagined out of the picture: unwanted pregnancy, regrets, bad example.

Pinker did not explore my type of response. I would reply: “ The harm Julie and Mark did was doing something they ought not do; they disobeyed a fundamental moral rule.”

My imagined argument with Pinker begins with challenging the very idea of doing harm simply by violating a law. The challenge could start by accusing me of begging the question. Pinker might claim that the question at issue is “What is wrong – what is the harm- brought about by disobeying the alleged moral law?” Pinker could go on to note that that I am begging off answering the question at issue by simply asserting that the harm is disobeying the law.

I would reply that I am not begging the question because the question is ambiguous. The question about the harm done by a morally forbidden act can be interpreted in two different ways as illustrated by the two questions A and B.

A. What is the harm done by performance of the forbidden act?
B. What is the harm done by violating the law forbidding the act?

Does it make sense to distinguish damage done by a violation of a law and damage done simply by the law’s being violated? The intelligibility of the distinction between harm done by a violation of a law and harm done by violating a law is brought out by considering traffic laws. It makes sense to consider whether I did any harm by violating a speed limit when my speeding caused no accident and was undetected. Even if many people will simply answer “Actually no harm at all” their answering the question, instead of challenging the question as senseless, indicates that they understand what is being asked.

However, a concession that it makes sense to ask about the harm done simply by violation of a law seems to bring us back to the original question which stumped Pinker’s respondents. A new question is “What is the harm done by the mere fact of violating a moral law?

I am faced with a dilemma between inventing some type of special harm which is necessarily connected with mere violation of a moral law or claiming that some natural harm always results from the mere fact that a moral law is violated.

If I invent some special non-natural type of harm such as creating disharmony in the moral order or even offending God, I make claims which I cannot justify since I want to justify my claims about morality on natural grounds.

If I claim that some natural harm, such as law abiding diminishes, situations can be invented as Pinker did with Julie and Mark, that shows the harm does not always occur.

What is the result of the discussion so far?

1. It is not a fact that acts violating moral laws always result in harm. (Pinker’s example)
2 It is not a fact that the mere violating of a moral law itself results in harm. (Concession from my dilemma.)

Because I cannot claim that there is some natural harm which inevitably result by the mere fact of violating a moral law but claim that moral harm is an inevitable consequence of violating a moral law, I have to concede that moral harm is not actual harm. So, to say that Mark and Julie suffered moral harm due to their incest is not to say that they or anyone else has actually suffered any harm. What, then, is moral harm?

It is a fact that people can get away with murder. My next sentence gives the key to my thesis about the reality of moral harm. People ought not be able to get away with murder. Unfortunately, there are many examples. Let one suffice. Think of a lynching in “the old south” of the 1930s. Of course, great harm was done to the black man. The perpetrators had enjoyment; let alone suffered harm. They died without any punishment or ill effects. Moral thinking warrants the thought “That is not how it ought to have been nor is it how it ought to be.” Some harm should have resulted from that terrible violation of the fifth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” Even now, after every member of the lynch mob is dead, there is still the warranted moral judgment that there ought to be harmful consequences. Now it is unspecified to whom the harm should fall upon.

The moral harm from the lynching is the warranted moral judgment that some harm should befall some human beings because of an awful violation of the moral law against killing.

The moral judgment creating moral harm is always unspecified with respect to whom ought to suffer harm and what the harm ought to be. The judgments about who ought to be harmed and how are separate moral judgments made to carry out the moral judgment that harm ought to result from violation of the moral law. The judgment that harm ought to occur because of a violation of a moral law is part of the moral judgment that an act ought not be done. That there is a sanction for violating a moral law is logically connected to the moral law. What the sanction ought to be and who ought to be sanctioned are further moral judgments – they are morally, not logically connected to the moral judgment that an act ought not be done.

I have used this notion of moral harm in a recent post Identity Politics and Collective Guilt.

In closing, I suggest much of the outcry for justice of the victims of clerical sexual abuse is a cry that some natural harm ought to result. The victims have to see that someone or something connected with the Catholic church needs to suffer harm even if the alleged perpetrators are long dead. There seems to be little complaint from the public at large if those of us who are faithful to the Church suffer economically and socially because of those secret sins between priests and boys.

* 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. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.

To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.