Moral confusion over bin Laden’s death

The Left is often morally confused when it comes to issues of violence and death. A textbook example of such mixed-up thinking was an opinion column in a local newspaper by Jo Page (a sometime Lutheran pastor), concerning reactions to bin Laden’s killing. (Here’s a link to it.)

Page writes of “reprisal and revenge” which “perpetuate a cycle of violence.” This would apply where some grievance is avenged not upon actual perpetrators but innocent people who happen to be members of the same “tribe.” Such “collective punishment” is unfortunately all too common in the world, and does perpetuate violence. But Americans in general have outgrown that primitive mentality. We know it’s wrong.

In contrast, where a culprit himself is punished, the proper terminology is not “reprisal and revenge” but “justice.” This is the concept the Left often has trouble with, confusing justice with revenge, and hence in turn with unjustified reprisal.

But humans evolved with powerful instincts for justice and fairness, and hence seeing a transgressor punished evokes strong – and appropriate – positive emotions. Consequently, punishment of crime is a key pillar of organized society, and it’s also integral to society’s key purpose of protecting its members. That’s what celebrations of bin Laden’s death mainly reflected. Americans were glad that a measure of justice had been achieved, and a threat removed.

This doesn’t, as Page says, “[reveal] a dehumanizing contempt for life.” To the contrary, it was precisely because Americans value life so highly that we felt so wounded by 9/11. It was to honor the human lives lost that we pursued justice through punishing their killer. And to those who say Osama was a human being too, after all, I would answer that his crimes removed him from the reverence we normally accord to human life. While one does have a fundamental human right not to be killed, a person who violates that right of others forfeits his own right to enjoy life.

We thusly have no qualms about depriving criminals of their enjoyment of life by locking them up; for a heinous killer to lose his right to life altogether is not so great a further step. No, that does not bring back the dead victims; but neither does imprisoning the murder. Why is it right to punish crimes at all?

 Because there is no justice to be had in some imagined future life; the only justice we can achieve is what we accomplish here on Earth. And the definition of justice is people getting what they deserve – whether it be rewards for virtue or punishment for evil.

Page, true to form, simulates moral sophistication by mocking the notion of a “dualistic world” wherein some persons are seen as embodying evil. Such aversion to black-and-white, and viewing everything only as shades of grey, is symptomatic of the postmodernist denial that anything means anything. It’s a way of simply shirking the human responsibility to make moral judgments. Yet contradictorily, Page herself says “[e]vil remains very much with us,” and “we must be committed to stand” against it.” Surely that applied to bin Laden. And, when a victory in that battle against evil is won, why might it be considered somehow wrong to rejoice?

Page also, like many, draws a parallel between that rejoicing and some Muslims “dancing in the streets” to celebrate 9/11. But 9/11 involved the murder of innocent people, and celebrating it was sick. Bin Laden was not innocent, and his death was just punishment for his horrific crimes. There is no analogy. It’s bizarre that liberals who are so into nuance and complexity can be blind to such non-subtle distinctions.

Oddly, Page herself writes that “we are our better selves when we acknowledge the distinction between enacting justice and celebrating violence.” Which is exactly what she fails to do.

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17 Responses to “Moral confusion over bin Laden’s death”

  1. Lee Says:

    Thank you for another thought-provoking article. A couple of my thoughts:

    [FSR: Thanks for taking the time to respond so fully.]

    Jo Page, whoever he/she is, has not been elected speaker for The Left. You can bash Jo Page’s words if you want, but please don’t generalize to the very diverse group known as The Left. Rather — at least according to Glenn Beck — George Soros and Frances Fox Piven are the ones who give The Left its talking points — though I haven’t been receiving my secret updates. 🙂

    [FSR: The views she expressed have also been expressed by others I would consider “Left” and indeed comport with notions advanced by Left-leaners in other contexts.]

    Punishment is just when it helps to stop a perpetrator who is likely to repeat, helps to reform such a perpetrator, deters copy cat crimes, or similar. IMHO, when punishment does not further one of these world-bettering goals then its value is suspect.

    [FSR: This is utilitarianism simpliciter! It’s actually a complex philosophical argument. Utilitarian considerations are valid ones, but that is not the beginning and the end of morality and justice. You should read Michael Sandel’s book Justice on this point. I am sure you would not reject a reward to some deserving person if it were the case that it did not serve some wider societal interest. Punishment is the other side of the coin. Why is it that religion (Christianity, certainly) is so infused with ideas of punishment in the “next world”? Because people intuitively feel there is a moral balance to be served, and if evil is not punished, that moral balance is out of whack.]

    In particular, “he got what he deserved” is, in and of itself, not sufficient grounds for punishment — why risk the downsides of punishment if the strongest upside is an ephemeral cathartic moment? So, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of Americans, conservative and liberal, all rejoice that the world will be better without bin Laden in power. The only potential disagreement that I see is in the death vs. capture department. Do you argue that his death will advance world-bettering goals significantly more than his capture would have?

    [FSR: actually, yes. His capture alive would have been a messy, fraught, difficult state of affairs. It was a great blessing that he was simply killed.]

    If so, then we can rejoice his death. If not, then his death represents a punishment with merit only in the catharsis category, and, IMHO, is a net downside to the extent that it goes against our Constitution, our goal of reconciliation with his former supporters, etc. (Though, see the next point, regarding self defense.)

    From everything I have heard, the Navy SEALS had reason to feel threatened by bin Laden, and the level of violence that they employed was justified. I have no complaints. However, at the risk of beating a dead horse, that is not the same as saying that we should rejoice that they had excuse to kill rather than capture him. We rejoice the death if it betters the world more than his capture would have, but otherwise I would describe the death aspect as unfortunate, but necessitated by the threat to the Navy SEALS.

    As you note, justice as “people getting what they deserve” can be interpreted from two perspectives. To the extent possible, restoration for the victim(s) is vital. While punishment of the person(s) doing wrong can also play a role, IMHO it is not an essential ingredient. In particular, a wrong necessitates a punishment only when punishment makes the world more better than reasonable alternative strategies would. Perhaps, this is an area of disagreement between conservatives and liberals; conservatives think that punishment of a wrongdoer is a key part of justice; and liberals think that it is key only when it is the most practical of the alternatives. Thoughts?

    [FSR: Indeed. This divergence in thinking is what I was talking about in my posting, and why I felt Page’s piece was typical of the Left. In Liberals, the evolutionarily-based justice-seeking gene seems faulty. For them, it fixates on “social justice,” which is to me an incoherent concept. But don’t get me started.]

    Be careful with “While one does have a fundamental human right not to be killed, a person who violates that right of others forfeits his own right to enjoy life.” Abortion doctors are being shot.

    [It is not an argument against a rational idea that some people may apply it irrationally.]

    Lastly, a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although one could dismiss it as pacifism, as if thus labeling it would obviate the need to address its content, I urge you to examine the statement for its practical implications. While we rejoice that the world will be better, that part of our joy that derives from our hate of our enemies is counterproductive:

    Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies
    hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….The chain reaction
    of evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars–must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of
    annihilation.

    [FSR: Thank you. It’s poetic. And there is some wisdom in it. There is too much hate in the world, and a lot of it flows from bad reasons. But I have my hatreds which I think flow from good reasons. I hate Robert Mugabe, Muammar Qadafi, Bashar Assad, and others like them. I hate what causes human suffering — and sometimes humans cause it.]

  2. Tom Says:

    “And the definition of justice is people getting what they deserve – whether it be rewards for virtue or punishment for evil.”

    Rewards from whom? Punishment from whom? You’re appear to be viewing the concept of justice as does a Christian who believes in their heaven-and-hell system of justice, where the state hands down a sentence of gain or suffering based on it’s arbitrary judgement rather than any rational principle.

    [FSR: Are you saying perfectly correct justice is an impossibility, so we should just forget about seeking justice at all? Human beings are imperfect. We do the best we can. I honor those who work at it.]

    In the case of Bin Laden’s crime, his victims number in the thousands. He deprived them of their lives and limbs and destroyed many other things besides. If we define justice as the pursuit of the morally right, then our course of justice should logically be to have the criminal party repair the injury to the victim to the fullest extent they can.

    [FSR: Agreed. Where possible. In bin Laden’s case, it was obviously not possible.]

    That would be, as you said, “people getting what they deserve”.

    In what way does Bin Laden’s death repair the injury to his victims? In what way is justice served by ending his life?

    I don’t care that he’s dead, but I care that it’s being defined as justice. Justice should mean something more than revenge killings. In my view the moral answer would be to have captured him, imprisoned him and, as a condition of his being kept alive, have required him to labour, the profit of which would have gone to his victims along with every single asset that could be seized from the old millionaire. If he then chose to starve rather than work, he would have chosen to surrender his own life rather than pay what he owed. If he died in the process of capture, as is being claimed now, then so be it. Cry me a river, right? But this killing achieves nothing that should be defined as justice.

    [FSR: see my response to Lee’s comment. And I repeat what I said in the post: if, as you say, “killing achieves nothing that should be defined as justice,” then what is the rationale for punishing any crime in any manner, such as prison? Just as it is right that good deeds are rewarded, it is right that evil deeds are punished. With death, if the crime is great enough.]

    Watching Americans celebrate his death was creepy for two reasons:
    1) Where is their sensitivity for the suffering of the millions killed and displaced by the American invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of this so-called justice? With all the suffering caused and still being caused you’d think they’d show a little more respect to the victims of American state terrorism.

    [FSR: Sorry, when you use a term like “American state terrorism,” I have nothing more to say to you, except that it’s a free country and you’re entitled to your opinions.]

    And what about the thousands of innocents killed by the American drones bombing Pakistan? You say that celebrating something that involved the death of innocent people was sick, and I agree. Doesn’t that principle apply here?
    2) It’s just creepy to celebrate the end of a human life. A better use of one’s energy would be to reflect on the evil that led to the crime being committed, and efforts being made to prevent further suffering. Not intervening in the Middle East any further would be a fine example of a productive effort towards this goal.

    Now, all that dissenting being done, I agree with your assertion that liberals are afraid of black-and-white morality (as if a moral shade of grey is anything other than moral black in disguise). Moral judgements are a crucial responsibility of all rational people. To quote Rand: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

  3. Tom Says:

    Your misunderstanding, in my humble opinion, is your assertion that crime deserves punishment, almost as if a criminal is a naughty child who doesn’t understand that they’ve done something wrong. That’s naive.

    [FSR: to liken a monster like bin Laden to a “naughty child” and thereby make mock of the situation is foolish. I am glad you state explicitly that you don’t agree that crime deserves punishment. It makes things clear; I think that position spins you down a moral black hole.]

    Justice is of-course an achievable goal, but it is not punishment, it is reparation. This mentality of reward and punishment is extremely theological and not at all a rational approach to the problem of unjust behaviour. I ask again, what was achieved through the death of Bin Laden that could be defined as justice?

    [FSR: You think you are being philosophically clever. The principle is that actions have consequences. If you reject that principle, I don’t see how you can talk rationally about any of this.]

    Is it justice simply because the American state says so? Should we not strive to define justice by more rational critera than the arbitrary dictate of self-declared authority?

    [See my response to Lee’s latest comment. Justice is not an exclusive artifact of government.]

    What’s the problem with the phrase “American state terrorism”? To the victims in Afghanistan and Pakistan it’s no different than terrorism, they’re being blown up through no fault of their own and having done nothing wrong. Do you not make a moral judgement regarding such behaviour?

    Thanks for responding, I hope you weren’t serious about withdrawing from the conversation over some lil’ throw-away terminology.

    [FSR: Your use of that kind of lingo marks you as profoundly cynical toward America. I do find that attitude a bar to useful conversation.]

  4. Lee Says:

    You write “I am sure you would not reject a reward to some deserving person if it were the case that it did not serve some wider societal interest. Punishment is the other side of the coin,” but what do you mean by deserving? If it furthers society’s goals to encourage a certain behavior then that would be consistent with my “utilitarian” goals.

    Do you mean that our society (for instance, as represented by our government) should reward people who are deserving for a reason other than that it furthers our societal goals? Can you give an example? I think I am missing your point.

    [FSR: as evidenced by your comment & the other one, some mindsets are mesmerized by government as some godlike arbiter and supervisor. Government is merely a societal instrumentality. I am talking in a broader sense of what’s right and wrong. Government need not come into it. To answer you more specifically, reward does not have to be bestowed by some authority able to decide whether to reward or withhold. It can occur organically from societal arrangements conducive to it. For example, the entrepreneur making a good product available and reaping a reward therefrom. Of course, that does serve societal interests. But is also just. And that is important, independent of societal benefit. People can also gain psychic rewards — and punishments — not awarded or meted out by anyone outside themselves. That too is an aspect of justice.]

  5. Lee Says:

    Maybe we agree, but are getting trapped by how we use some word or another differently?? Let me try my point of view again: We (as government, families, other groups and/or individuals acting independently) should reward or punish others (or ourselves) when it is rational. I consider that statement to be a tautology, because I use the word “should” when I mean “rational.” By a rational decision or act, I mean one that is better than its alternatives. I consider that statement to be the definition of “rational.” I believe that there is a wide variety among us as to how we rank various priorities, and there is no way to come up with a universal definition of “better.” To the extent that conflicts have to be resolved, I look to debate and democratic systems (rather than, say, scripture such as the Bible, Ayn Rand, etc.).

    Maybe we all agree with the above. Maybe our disagreement is only that I wrote “better world” in my original posts where now I write simply “better.” Perhaps my use of “better world” made it appear that, as a precondition to debate, I was insisting that all collective/group/government priorities be ranked higher than all individual priorities. That was not my intent.

    As you briefly mention, there are some strong practical reasons to favor killing rather than capturing bin Laden, even in the absence of the threat to the Navy SEALS, and I consider these worthy of the debate. But by my thinking, the emotional “we got the S.O.B.” or “he deserved it” arguments are quite weak. For this last, the benefit (to society, governments, families, other groups, and/or individuals) appears to me to be nothing more than a short-lived emotional elation. If we were somehow in a world where the more-practical reasons for killing bin Laden were absent, I would think that this brief emotional upside that supports killing bin Laden is not sufficient to overcome the practical reasons in favor of capturing bin Laden. Do you agree, or would you still argue that, as a typical representative of The Left, my evolutionarily-based justice-seeking gene is faulty?

    [FSR: You continue to view the issue in exclusively utilitarian terms — that is, punishment of wrongdoing is justified only insofar as it serves some societal interest, and that otherwise the notion of punishment is illegitimate. Well, OK, I would argue that even if your premise were correct, it serves the common good to have a society wherein wrongdoing accrues punishment, because it is important for people to feel that they live in a society where there is some justice, rather than a society that doesn’t care about justice. Wholly apart from any other utilitarian societal-benefit considerations. In other words, justice itself, incorporating punishment for wrongdoing, is a societal value, morally justified in that way even if there were no other moral justification.]

    Perhaps I can find time to read Michael Sandel’s Justice. Thanks!

  6. Tom Says:

    I didn’t say Bin Laden was like a naughty child, I said your approach to justice treated criminality “as if a criminal is a naughty child”.

    [FSR: Precisely. And your saying that inappropriately belittles the concept of justice. If criminals were all indeed like naughty children, the moral problem would be very different. But bin Laden was not at all like a naughty child, and killing him was certainly not what anyone would countenance in dealing with a naughty child.]

    That’s not the same thing. Your assertion that approaching justice from an angle of reparation rather than revenge would spin us “down a moral black hole” is highly questionable.

    [FSR: No. I endorse reparation where it is possible; in the real world that tends to be fairly rare. Certainly there can be no reparation vis-a-vis a murder victim. And I reject your characterization that the alternative to reparation is “revenge,” as I explained in my original post.]

    How do you justify this assumption? By what rationality is justice only moral when it causes damage to the criminal without repairing the property of the victim?

    I am not rejecting the principle that actions have consequences. I am saying that the consequence of harming another person is that you then morally owe a debt for the damage done, one which society must force you to repay, rather than the consequence being some form of a slap on the wrist which produces nothing beneficial. If the principle is merely that “actions have consequences”… what consequences? Who defines which consequence is appropriate? That actions have consequences is a fact of the universe, not a moral principle. The principle I am rejecting is “punishment is the correct response to criminality”, since I believe the correct (rational) response is the one which produces reparation for the victim.

    [In a perfect world. Of course, in a perfect world, there would be no crimes.]

    I do think I’m being philosophically clever though, that’s true. You have to challenge yourself on topics like this, it’s too easy to instinctively call on medieval concepts like ‘an eye for an eye’. I’m primarily drawing from the work of the Tannehill’s in their book The Market For Liberty. It’s available for free online in .pdf and audiobook form if you’d like to learn more about a model of free market justice that concentrates on producing tangible value to the victim rather than merely harming the criminal.

    Quoting from your response to Lee: “as evidenced by your comment & the other one, some mindsets are mesmerized by government as some godlike arbiter and supervisor.” Well that’s just a misinterpretation of what’s being said. What I was specifically saying was that YOU had a theological approach to justice, not I, viewing the state as God and punishment as hell. I am an anarchist, my mindset towards government is one of total rejection on the grounds of morality. If we agree that property rights exist, as I’m sure a rational person will, then taxation and the government monopoly on legal force violate those rights. Thus, government cannot help but “come into” a discussion of right and wrong that is founded in a rational approach to human rights.

    Thank you again for responding, I really appreciate your continued involvement.

  7. Tom Says:

    “If criminals were all indeed like naughty children, the moral problem would be very different. But bin Laden was not at all like a naughty child, and killing him was certainly not what anyone would countenance in dealing with a naughty child.”

    Well then why is your belief that criminals should be “punished”? Punishment is for teaching someone a lesson; criminals know that what they are doing is wrong, they are not lacking for awareness of moral law but rather an interest in adhering to it. Forcing them to repair damage done to their victims, to fully and completely pay their debt to the party they aggressed against, seems to me the properly just way to establish a rule of law.

    My point is not that they are like children at all, but the exact opposite; they are responsible entities who will learn nothing from a slap on the wrist and should instead be held responsible for the damage they cause by being forced to repair it. If you agree with me that criminals are not naughty children, then why is the slap on the wrist your preferred method of achieving a just outcome?

    Either the correct form of justice is one which injures the perpetrator, or one which repairs the victim. Neither of these require “a perfect world”; it is a simple thing to force a criminal to financially repair their victim. In the case of murder the debt owed to the victim would be inherited by their family and would have to be scaled in such a way that it could account for both the loss of life and the emotional damage done to said family, but reparation could be made. Simply killing the perpetrator achieves nothing that can be described as justice; it creates one more corpse and guarantees that the debt to the victim remains forever unpaid.

    If justice is punishment, who should administer the punishment? Can anyone administer punishment, and to what extent? At which point does the punishment administered exceed the punishment required and become a criminal act in itself?

    {FSR: One last time. Your harping on the idea of reparations is supercilious. It sounds like you have no idea of the harm done to crime victims, nor of the real world in which the wrongdoer has no capability to make reparations except in the rarest of cases. As I explained to Lee, even IF you utterly reject all notions of “cosmic” justice, punishment of wrong serves valid societal interests inasmuch as people don’t want to live in, and won’t feel allegiance to, a nihilistic society as indifferent as you to whether to crime in punished, as that violates a deeply internalized sense of what is right and wrong.
    As to who administers it, go read your Hobbes. We set up society with laws and a government to enforce them as a social compact — you give up your right to bash your neighbor, and give government the authority to administer laws, in exchange for the protections that that provides to you.]

    By the way, I saw you won a Spooner Award. Congratulations on that achievement, I’d love to aspire to earn one myself some day. This conversation inspired me to read more Spooner, and I’d like to share with you a sentiment I think we’ll both agree with:

    ‘The ancient maxim makes the sum of a man’s legal duty to his fellow men to be simply this: “To live honestly, to hurt no one, to give to every one his due.”

    This entire maxim is really expressed in the single words, to live honestly: since to live honestly is to hurt no one, and give to every one his due.’
    – Lysander Spooner, Natural Law, 1886

    Ugh, I just saw Lee referred to Ayn Rand as “scripture”. That’s cheeky, Lee!

  8. Tom Says:

    Why has the wrongdoer no capability to make reparations? They can be imprisoned and made to work, with the profit of their labour used to pay for their imprisonment and the rest sent to their victim. Thus the victim is, to the greatest extent possible, repaired. Injuring the victim even further by forcing them to pay for a roof over the criminal’s head and 3 hot meals is, on the other hand, a complete reversal of justice! The debt of the criminal to the victim remains unpaid; how can we call this justice?

    You assert that “societal interests” demand crime be punished in order to satisfy the internalized sense of right and wrong: why? Why is punishment the correct means of enforcing right and wrong, and not reparation? My sense of right and wrong is not satisfied by mere punishment. So should this be a matter of majority rule, legal authority derived from mob force, or should we strive for a rational structure of justice which repairs the damage done?

    So you advocate the social contract theory? That is a shame, coming from a Spooner Award winner (FYI, Spooner utterly destroyed social contract theory in his work ‘No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority’). Social contract theory is the easiest of all statist justifications to debunk, because by definition a contract is a voluntary agreement between individual parties. Where is the voluntary aspect of the ‘social contract’? Not only was I never offered an opportunity to sign it, I am offered no opportunity to modify or exit it. The so-called ‘social contract’ meets none of the definitions for a contract, and is simply an excuse for amoral brutes to dominate society and oppress the individual. It is arguably the most anti-liberal (in the traditional sense) philosophical mis-step ever made.

    Do you honestly believe that an individual has a right to “bash their neighbour”? Do you believe that coercive aggression against an innocent person is a right of man? And if such a right does not exist, then how can I “give” government that right on my behalf? How can I surrender a moral authority that I do not have? And if the government is going around bashing neighbours (for drug violations, tax evasion and other victimless “crimes”) then how am I “protected” at all?

    Again, loving this conversation, thank you for your continued involvement. I think the degree to which we can be rationally optimistic about the future is the degree to which we can be rational about the moral values of man. Without moral order we have no future.

  9. Dan Ryder Says:

    I’ve enjoyed this thread – thanks! Here’s my analysis of the stand-off – is it close to right?

    Frank thinks that punishment for a wrongdoer is intrinsically just – this is just a basic moral fact. (If this punishment also involves reparation for the victim, so much the better, but in the absence of reparation, punishment is still just. And there could be issues about who has the right to inflict the punishment; but this is independent of the fact that it is right for the wrongdoer to *receive* punishment.) According to Frank, this principle has the same sort of status as the principle that harming someone for no reason is morally wrong. You can’t say *why* it’s wrong, it just is. That’s a basic moral fact too.

    Tom & Lee, on the other hand, think that it’s not intrinsically just for a wrongdoer to receive punishment, it’s not a basic moral fact. Punishment requires some further justification, a further reason why punishment is the right action to take (e.g. a utilitarian reason.)

    Here’s an analogy: some people think that killing a person is intrinsically wrong – a basic moral fact. As a result, they also think that euthanasia is wrong, independent of the consequences. Others think that killing a person isn’t intrinsically wrong; it’s only wrong for some other reason – e.g. because it’s wrong to take away a valuable future. So these folks would probably say that euthanasia can sometimes be OK, because no valuable future is being taken away.

    So the question for Frank is: why do you think the punishment principle is basic? The only reason I’ve seen so far is that “it’s built into our genes” or something. But that’s not a very good reason to suppose that some moral principle is correct. (Maybe it’s built into our genes to be violent towards someone who ticks us off, but we rightly resist this impulse!)

    There seems to be a contrast between taking “Harming someone for no reason is wrong” as basic, and “the wrongdoer deserves punishment” as basic. The first seems obvious in a way that the second doesn’t. But I’m betting that Frank thinks they’re equally obvious.

    Suppose bin Laden was about to die anyway, in a matter of hours, from terminal cancer. Would it have been right to inflict a punishment on him quickly, before he died and the chance to do so was lost? Frank should say yes, Tom & Lee should say no. I have to side with Tom & Lee here.

    (Tom: I can exit a particular social contract by moving out of the relevant jurisdiction. Unfortunately for you, there isn’t a jurisdiction where you’d be happy to move and “sign” the contract – too bad the Earth is so small. But that doesn’t seem fatal to social contract theory [not that I’m remotely expert on this stuff].)

    [FSR: Dan, thanks for acting as moderator. You did a good job. Could use you in my book discussion group!
    In asking why punishment is intrinsically morally right, one might well ask why morality is morally right. After all, there is no God, and there is no morality in nature. One cannot justify any moral idea except by reference to human moral reasoning; there is no cosmic morality “out there” for us to access or find. To the extent that moral reasoning did crop up as a trait in human evolution, that occurred because having it turned out to improve a group’s fitness for survival; a group with morality did better than one without; utilitarianism again. And punishment for wrongdoing is a concept that completely fits with that. Our affinity for that concept did not arise as some random, arbitrary notion; rather, it again served the interests of group survival, as well as satisfying the human desire to live in a universe with some order rather than a chaotic universe. That encompasses rational order as well as physical order.
    You can say that punishment has no “true” moral basis. The same can be said of any “moral” principle, including the idea of reparation for crime. What makes THAT any more justified or less unobvious than punishment? There is no outside reference point we can look to. It can only come from within us.]

  10. Dan Ryder Says:

    Thanks for the compliment – if I didn’t live in BC, I’d join! So I take it I’m right about what you’d say concerning the bin-Laden-about-to-die case? He ought to be punished in some way, right at that moment, before he up and dies? (Maybe tortured?)

    [FSR: I consider it a good thing that he had enough time to realize he was being killed by Americans. It would have been even better, by far, if he could have been made to know he’s not going to Heaven.]

    There seem to be plenty of rules built into our minds by evolution. Rules about how to reason, rules of math, rules of action: defend your own tribe, get revenge on your enemies, etc. etc. How do we decide which ones are true? You’re right, we can only rely on our natural endowments to do this. But that doesn’t mean these natural endowments fail to track objective truth. In a sense, we can only justify “1+1=2” except by reference to human reasoning; there are no numerical facts “out there” that we can do experiments on. But it’s at best highly suspect to say that “1+1=2” is *made* true by human reasoning. It’s objectively true. Similarly, moral facts could be objectively true, even if we get at them via evolution. Compare your “why is morality right?” to “why is mathematics right?”

    [FSR: Sam Harris has written a book arguing (against philosophers from David Hume to A. J. Ayer) that science can give us moral laws. I haven’t read it.]

    Second, even if you’re right that moral facts are fundamentally evolutionary facts, we still differentiate among the rules that evolution has built into us. We reject the one that says: defend your tribe (even to the extent of extinguishing everyone else), whereas we accept the one that says: don’t inflict needless suffering.

    [FSR: We evolve. We progress.]

    How can you tell that “punish the wrongdoer” falls into the category that we should accept?

    [FSR: Because I believe that humanity’s rejection of this principle — a pure hypothetical, it seems unimaginable that this could happen — would result in human experience very greatly worse.]

    Lee, Tom and I (and Gandhi and many others) think that the consequence with respect to the bin-Laden-about-to-die case shows that this is one of the principles that should be rejected. We can see why evolution would build this into us – the threat of revenge affords protection – but there are powerful reasons against it, including “don’t inflict needless suffering,” where “needless” is interpreted as “not bestowing any compensating benefit.” By contrast, nobody rejects “don’t inflict needless suffering” because that’s as close as you can get to “1+1=2” in morality. I would say it comes from the logic of value (taking us back to my first point).

    (Addendum: evolutionary success is not utilitarian success – far from it! And even if God existed, it wouldn’t help with grounding moral facts: see Plato’s Euthyphro argument.)

  11. Tom Says:

    Am I not going to be receiving a direct response to my post, FSR?

    [FSR: Not necessarily.]

    @Dan

    “Tom & Lee, on the other hand, think that it’s not intrinsically just for a wrongdoer to receive punishment, it’s not a basic moral fact. Punishment requires some further justification, a further reason why punishment is the right action to take (e.g. a utilitarian reason.)”

    Me and Lee are not making equivalent arguments, and I would not make a utilitarian argument. My argument is strictly moral: if we consider the act of damaging another to be a moral crime, then the only rational (and thus demonstrably moral) form of justice should be the criminal repairing the victim. Punishment for the sake of punishment is an irrational and immoral policy because it does not repair the basic injustice, and when perpetrated by the state is often a worse evil than the initial crime (forcing the victim to pay for 3 hot meals and a roof over their attacker’s head, for example).

    Why is punishment the rational course of action? What moral good does it achieve? I’m hoping FSR will answer this crucial point.

    [FSR: The moral good is living in a world where there is some justice, in terms of matching outcomes with deservingness, as opposed to a morally chaotic world in which there is no such correlation. If justice does not mean at least that, it does not mean anything.]

    “(Tom: I can exit a particular social contract by moving out of the relevant jurisdiction. Unfortunately for you, there isn’t a jurisdiction where you’d be happy to move and “sign” the contract – too bad the Earth is so small. But that doesn’t seem fatal to social contract theory [not that I’m remotely expert on this stuff].)”

    Sadly that doesn’t answer the initial problem: when did you sign the “contract” in the first place? When did you agree indefinitely to be a slave to the whims of your neighbours? No rational man would sign such an agreement, and indeed none of us did. If three men are alone on an island, does one have a moral obligation to be a slave to the other two? If not, what about an individual on an island of thirty men? What about three hundred? What size must ‘society’ be before it can arbitrarily institute the existence of a non-physical, non-voluntarily “contract” on individuals? Before we begin to consider mob rule and slavery to be “moral”?

    [FSR: Oh, please. If it were a question of actually signing up, I would do so in a trice. I for one am extremely glad to live in an organized society with the basic social contract in effect. I believe my life would be far worse — impossible, actually — without it.]

    Lysander Spooner’s “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority” spells out the defeat of social contract theory on a level I can only mimic, and you can also find a 5-minute demolition of the theory at this link:

    The difference between the ‘justice as punishment’ and ‘justice as reparation’ view is that the former tends to come about from a collectivist view of society, where a crime one commits against an individual is in effect committed against society, or the state, and must be punished to scare people out of further committing forbidden acts. The latter on the other hand treats a crime against an individual as precisely that.

    If we take FSR’s argument that groups with moral codes survived better than ones without as correct, it is logical to assume that moral codes utilising reparation survived better than ones relying on retribution. This is logically true because retribution is necessarily destructive, in that it destroys a part of the criminal (their time, their body, whatever form the punishment takes), whereas reparation repairs the victim. Therefore a society built on reparative justice would simply have more: more time, more bodies, more repaired goods, more societal cohesion, whatever.

    I don’t have time to do a lot of research into the matter, but Wiki appears to back me up on this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restorative_justice#History

    Note how the great historical tribes apparently used “restorative justice” to repair individuals until they conquered by kings, their systems of justice replaced with a collectivist system of punishment.

    [FSR: One FINAL time: I do NOT disagree with the moral value of reparative justice. I disagree that it is an actual answer to the actual problems of human interaction in the actual world.]

  12. Lee Says:

    I was going to give the example of “1 + 1 = 2” but arrive at a different conclusion! Mathematicians, specifically abstract algebraists, have worked with “numbers” where “1 + 1 = 0”. Such numbers are self-consistent in a mathematically rigorous sense, and one can prove all sorts of theorems, which are considered beautiful and interesting to these mathematicians … and insight is gained by comparing how these new numbers are the same and different from the more traditional numbers. But, I argue, the reason that “1 + 1 = 2” is the accepted truth is that it is by far more practical than the alternative. Outside of a small corner of quantum physics, I know of no practical use for the “1 + 1 = 0” numbers (other than that they lead to insights when compared to the “1 + 1 = 2” numbers).

  13. Lee Says:

    Frank writes

    Well, OK, I would argue that even if your premise were correct, it serves the common good to have a society wherein wrongdoing accrues punishment, because it is important for people to feel that they live in a society where there is some justice, rather than a society that doesn’t care about justice.

    and

    The moral good is living in a world where there is some justice, in terms of matching outcomes with deservingness, as opposed to a morally chaotic world in which there is no such correlation. If justice does not mean at least that, it does not mean anything.

    How is these more than saying that we should have punishment even absent the practical reasons we have been discussing because there are people who think we should have punishment even absent these practical reasons? I know you mean something more than this circular logic, but I still am not seeing it.

    Peace to you my friend –Lee.

  14. Tom Says:

    “[FSR: Not necessarily.]”

    Any reason why not? I thought it was a rather sound response.

    “[FSR: The moral good is living in a world where there is some justice, in terms of matching outcomes with deservingness, as opposed to a morally chaotic world in which there is no such correlation. If justice does not mean at least that, it does not mean anything.]”

    Again, this dodges the actual question. The question is not whether one should have morality or not, but why punishment should be considered justice. I still do not understand why you believe that punishment is a rational form of justice. My question was not “why do we need justice?” but rather “Why is punishment the rational course of action? What moral good does it achieve?”…

    “[FSR: Oh, please. If it were a question of actually signing up, I would do so in a trice. I for one am extremely glad to live in an organized society with the basic social contract in effect. I believe my life would be far worse — impossible, actually — without it.]”

    This also does not answer my objections. My question was not “why do you want to believe that a social contract exists?” but rather “When did you agree indefinitely to be a slave to the whims of your neighbours? What size must ‘society’ be before it can arbitrarily institute the existence of a non-physical, non-voluntarily ‘contract’ on individuals? Before we begin to consider mob rule and slavery to be ‘moral’?”

    If you believe that the “social contract”, or rather the concept of a non-voluntary obligation to obey other people, has a rational, moral justification beyond your own personal desire for one then please demonstrate it. If you have no moral case for it’s existence, then are you not simply making a utilitarian argument because you believe it to be preferable?

    Not only would I much rather have natural law and natural rights, as Spooner proposed, than a ‘social contract’ where one party is essentially free to enslave another, I strongly believe that only the former has ANY moral validity as a basis for peaceful organised co-existence.

    “[FSR: One FINAL time: I do NOT disagree with the moral value of reparative justice. I disagree that it is an actual answer to the actual problems of human interaction in the actual world.]”

    That’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not punishment is moral. I don’t think you’ve said anything thus far that demonstrates it’s morality. You’ve demonstrated that you find it desirable, but that is not the same thing.

    Keenly anticipating your response.

  15. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    Comment from Frank’s wife Therese:
    In his personal family life, Frank is very forgiving of other people’s faults and slights against him. I can’t think of any instance in which he has “punished” his relatives for behaviors or speech acts which could, reasonably, be considered “harm” done to him. I see Frank as a very peaceful and good-natured and generous person, someone who is much more likely to make allowances for his family members’ moral failures than to seek retribution, justice, or punishment. On the contrary, one reason that he has never spanked, slapped, pulled, pushed, or hit his daughter (or me) is that his own parents used to mete out such physical punishment. Frank is one of the least vengeful people I’ve ever met. I admire him for treating other people with more civility and kindness than they treat him sometimes.

    [FSR: Thanks; though I’m not sure of the relevance. I am not addressing this issue from a personal standpoint. And I don’t feel that any “crimes” have been committed against me by family members! I am forgiving, up to a point, but there are people who I want punished for very real crimes. Bin Laden was one of them.]

  16. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    Comment from Frank’s wife:
    Frank, you know well that I’m not as intellectually agile as you are. I can’t wrap my mind around most of the political or moral discussions on your blog. I can’t grasp many of the nuances.

    [FSR: Actually, my wife is smarter than I am.]

    Nevertheless, I think that my input about your personal qualities is relevant. Why don’t you illustrate your intellectual principles by describing examples of your own personal behavior (while, of course, respecting other people’s privacy)?

    [FSR: Yes, I know I am a paragon of virtue, and modesty is one of my virtues. But I don’t want to get into a modesty contest with my wife.]

  17. Tom Says:

    Hi Therese! I love the fact that you and Frank don’t use physical discipline on your child, that’s fantastic.

    I kinda wish I hadn’t used a provocative phrase like “state terrorism” earlier, because it appears to have put me and Frank on the wrong foot. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion and have learnt a lot from it. Hopefully Frank, Dan and Lee will respond further and we can continue this discussion some more…

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