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.