Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Retributive punishment is good for the evildoer

Everything that God does, he does for the sake of some good.  But to be a good is to be a good for one or more entities.  Thus, everything that God does, he does for the sake of some good for one or more entities.

One of the things God does is retributively punish some sinners.  This is controversial, but I think true, and I shall assume it.  If you don't buy it, then take the following to be an exploration of what would have to be true if God were to punish retributively.

It follows that he does this for the sake of some good for one or more entities that I will call the intended beneficiaries of the punishment.

God cannot be the only intended beneficiary.  For God is transcendent.  His intrinsic well-being is not affected by what happens in the creaturely realm.  If God is a beneficiary of the retributive punishment, it is only in the derivative sense in which anything that benefits someone one loves counts as benefiting oneself.

What are the remaining options for the intended beneficiary?  I think the only plausible ones are: the sinners themselves, the victims of the sin, and bystanders.

But the sin need have no victim beside the sinner.  It could, for instance, be a sin of blasphemy against God (and while the sin is against God, God is not victimized).  And God is not the only intended beneficiary.  So the victims of the sin cannot be the only beneficiaries.

How about bystanders?  Tertullian suggested that the saints in heaven will rejoice at the suffering of the wicked.  But a virtuous person rejoices only at something that is good for reasons independent of the rejoicing.  Hence the primary good of the punishment of the wicked cannot be that it enables rejoicing by the righteous.  Moreover, it would surely be possible for God to punish someone without there being any bystanders--for instance, God could have chosen to create only one person, and if this person sinned, God could have punished this person.

That leaves the sinner.

Of course, sometimes punishment benefits the person being punished by leading her to repentance.  But if that was the only good being pursued by God in punishing the sinner, then that would not be a case of retributive punishment.

I think the only remaining option is that retributive punishment is simply good in and of itself for the person receiving it.  It is good for one to get what one deserves, be it punishment or reward.  Think of the case of reward.  If you have done something good, and I reward you for it by giving you a gift, the value of the reward for you is not just the value of the item that I've given you--it is the value of the item as a reward from me for your good deeds.  Likewise, if you have done something wicked, and I have the authority to punish you for it by imposing harsh treatment on you, while the harsh treatment as mere harsh treatment has a disvalue, the fact that it is harsh treatment given as a punishment from me for your wicked deeds has a value, and it is a value for you (it's surely not a value for me, nor necessarily for the victims or bystanders).

Of course it is possible to receive something of value without appreciating its value.  The repentant sinner appreciates the value of justly deserved harsh treatment--that is, in fact, one of the signs of a criminal's repentance--but the unrepentant sinner does not appreciate it.  But it has a value, nonetheless.  If it didn't, it wouldn't be a sign of vice that one does not appreciate it.


enigMan said...

I suppose that it's better to be pitied than hated, and that retributive punishment could make the former more likely?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or maybe better put it like this: It's better to be worthy of pity than of resentment. The unpunished wrongdoer is worthy of resentment. Punishment makes her worthy of pity instead.

Being worthy of resentment is, as such, a bad thing. Being worthy of pity isn't, as such, a bad thing, though it is always the result of a bad thing.

Andrew said...

This might be off topic a bit, but your post reminded me of this. To what extent do you think consequentialist reasons factor into our justifictory explanation of God's retributive punishment (or perhaps his allowance of people to suffer evil...) [I have in mind traditional theodicies.] Do you think most theodicies are consequentialistic?

If this isn't the right place, feel free to ignore the question.

hatsoff said...

Mr. Pruss,

I'm a little confused as to what you're suggesting, here. In particular, I can't imagine what value divine retribution could have to a sinner. It looks like you think that it has some sort of intrinsic goodness---goodness "in and of itself," you call it---and that this is what gives it its value. But I don't know how to make sense of goodness (intrinsic or otherwise) except again in terms of value, and so we run right back to the original question, why value divine retribution?

Or we could rephrase the question and ask, in what sense is divine retribution "good" for the sinner, that it should be valuable to him?

I just don't see how it's possible to find any value or goodness in divine punishment without imposing limitations on God's resources.


Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't know exactly what kind of value punishment has. But my thinking is this. Take the side of reward. You give me a lovely vase in gratitude for something I did for you. The reward has two components of value. One component comes is simply the value of the vase. If you gave me the vase not as a reward, but for any other reason, it would still have that value. But there is a second component of the value which comes from the fact that the vase is a deserved reward.

Now, in the case of punishment, we have two sorts of components of value. First, there is the value of the harsh treatment as such. Second, there is the component that comes from the fact that the harsh treatment is a deserved punishment. In the case of reward, the two components add up. In the case of punishment, they point in opposite directions: the harsh treatment has disvalue but the deserved-punishment component has value.

Why think this? Well, here is a thought. It seems reasonable and virtuous that someone who has done something wrong might wish to be punished, to "pay her debt to society", and would find it of value to do so. But one should not find of value that which has no objectively value. (There are some gaps here.)

That still doesn't answer the question of what sort of value the punishment has.

Here are some of my speculations:

It's the good of being justly treated.

Option 1: It's a species of
being respected.

Option 2: It's a species of efficacy. It's the last effect of one's actions.

Option 3: It's good to see things as they are. To see oneself as one is, when one wicked, involves pain. The
pain imposed by the punishment is like the output of a hearing aid: it
is a prosthesis that substitutes for one's insensitive faculty of

Option 4: True punishment consists in a clear perception of one's true state. The sinner's true state is bad in body (because bodily desires are misdirected) and in soul, and this perception is pain. It is good to have a clear perception of the truth.

hatsoff said...

It might be possible for a tormented soul to somehow make the best of his situation by finding aspects of his torment which he appreciates. And so, in line with your suggestions, he may find it interesting to have a clearer perception of his rebellion against God, or his deservedness of punishment under God's justice system; or he might value the knowledge of how God responds to his behavior; etc.

I have two thoughts on this. First, the sinner could presumably find similar appreciation in a much kinder treatment. If knowledge of his situation and of God's plan is what the sinner values, then he can have these things independent of the existence of Hell. So, instead of tormenting sinners for the rest of forever, God could simply grant sinners with knowledge of his mercy, and leave it at that (i.e. not lump in the torment). And similarly with showing respect, or revealing the results of wicked behaviors, and so forth. I don't see why Hell should be required for any of those things.

Secondly, whatever small appreciation he finds in these aspects of his experience, it seems to me fairly plain that, on the whole, his experience is disvalued. In other words, as long as we take the traditional, nightmarish view of Hell, then the negative aspects of the Hell experience will far outweigh the positives. In that case, it seems a horrible thing for God to impose such horror on human souls.