Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Retributive punishment and Christian forgiveness

Start with this argument:

  1. Christians ought to forgive all wrongdoing.
  2. Forgiving includes foregoing retribution.
  3. All ought to forego retribution in the absence of wrongdoing.
  4. Therefore, Christians ought in all cases to forego retribution.
And, yet the following also seem true:
  1. Retributive justice is central to the concept of punishment.
  1. Punishment is often needed for the public good.

What is the Christian to do? Well, one thought is that we should weaken (1). Thomas Aquinas in his sermons on the Lord's Prayer says that we are only required to forgive those who ask us for forgiveness. (After all, Christ tells us to expect God to forgive us as we forgive others; but we do ask God for forgiveness.) Forgiving the unrepentant is supererogatory, he says. That weakens the conflict between the displayed claims. Nonetheless, there are times when the criminal justice system needs to punish someone who we have good reason to think is repentant, because the risks to society of letting her go free may be unacceptably high. Furthermore, Aquinas's modification of (1) doesn't help all that much because the supererogatory is by definition always right. So even with Aquinas's modification of (1), we still seem to get a conflict between forgiveness and the needs of the public good.

Another move, and it may be the most promising, is to distinguish between the individual and the community. Forgiveness is the individual Christian's duty (or at least supererogation--but for brevity I won't consider that option any more), but there are wrongs that, on account of the public good, the community should not forgive. I think this is a quite promising option, but I am not completely convinced. One reason I am not convinced is that Catholic social teaching allows for the possibility of a Christian state, with Vatican City being an example. And there is some plausibility in thinking that the Christian state should behave rather like the Christian individual, but a Christian state has need of punishment for safeguarding the public good. Now maybe forgiveness and punishment are one of the things that varies between the Christian individual and the Christian state, so that the individual should forgive while the state sometimes is not permitted to do so. But it would be good to have another approach.

Think about sports and victory. The very concept of a fencing match cannot be understood apart from seeing it as a practice whose internal end is getting to a score of five before the opponent does. Nonetheless, it is possible to have a friendly and honorable match where no one is intentionally pursuing victory. Rather, the players are exercising their skills in excellent ways that tend to promote victory without actually seeking victory. (The clearest case may be a parent fencing with a child and hoping that the child's skills are so good that the parent will be defeated; but one can have cases where each wants the other to win.)

Similarly, perhaps, just as sports cannot be understood apart from victory, punishment cannot be understood apart from retribution. But just as there are reasons besides victory to play, there are reasons apart from retribution to punish. In those cases, punishment is not intended by the agent. (Another example: I have argued that sex cannot be understood apart from its reproductive end; however, agents can permissibly refrain from pursuing reproduction in particular cases of sex.) This suggests that perhaps we should weaken premise (2) of the initial argument to:

  1. Forgiving includes refraining from pursuit of retribution.
The weakened argument only yields the conclusion that Christians ought to refrain from pursuing retribution. But refraining from pursuit of retribution may well be compatible with punishment. And the public goods that render punishment necessary need not include retribution--retribution can be left to the God who says: "Vengeance is mine".

This may be a part of why John Paul II says in Evangelium Vitae that for the death penalty to be justified in some particular (and presumably very rare) case it must be justified on grounds of protection of society. In other words, it is the protection of society, rather than retribution, that is to be sought.


Brandon said...

There seems another way to weaken (1), which is to argue that it should read, "Christians ought to forgive all wrongdoing against themselves". This is not the same as distinguishing individuals and communities; one can still argue that Christian states should forgive wrongdoing against themselves in particular, but that Christian states still might punish for wrongdoing not against the states themselves (e.g., against individuals).

A corollary of this (assuming a retributive theory of punishment), which might be taken as a disadvantage or not, is that it could complicate matters considerably -- I may forgive you for wrongdoing against me, but others might sometimes still have the responsibility to punish you for the wrongdoing for which I have forgiven you. (Perhaps there's a connection here with the scholastic concept of vindicatio, sometimes a bit misleadingly translated as 'vengeance'; in his discussion of it, Aquinas argues that the good endure the wrongdoing of others against themselves, but they don't endure the wrongdoing of others against their neighbors.) But it's not always clear when we should and should not punish A's wrongdoing against B when B has forgiven A -- I think one may have to have more to one's theory of punishment than retribution to determine this.

Another corollary, which I think is probably an advantage, is that a Christian state would have to forgive wrongdoing against the state in particular, but still might have the responsibility to punish wrongdoing against the people it protects.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It would be odd, though, to have a case where a wrongdoer harms A and B, and both A and B forgive, but nonetheless A and B are each working to retributively punish the wrongdoer on account of the wrongdoer's harm to the other. That kind of setup seems to fail to respect the force of the forgiveness.

Brandon said...

I'm not sure that the oddness is anything other than the rarity of being in precisely that situation in a case where the wrongdoing is serious enough that it's doubtful that the forgiveness of it by the victim cancels all responsibility of everyone else to work for its punishment. If X murders A, thus harming A and A's spouse B alike, and A forgives X as he/she dies for his/her own murder, while B forgives X for the wrong done to B in killing B's spouse, it still makes sense for B to continue to work for X to be punished for murdering A. It's just that serious, and it's not clear that either A's or B's forgiveness changes most of the reasons for punishing murderers in the first place. Other serious crimes involving standing responsibilities -- rape of a spouse or child, and the like -- seem to create the same kind of situation. So the asymmetrical cases seem entirely possible. It's just difficult to find symmetrical cases.

But your suggestion does also raise the question of how joint forgiveness works, since the original idea doesn't have a notion that people might sometimes get together and agree together to forgive something. (There wouldn't, it seems, be any problem with the case if neither A nor B knew about each others' forgiveness, so it seems that whether or not the act of forgiveness is mutually known or, more strongly, shared between them might make a difference.)