JUST WHAT ARE GOOD AND EVIL? Radical Bleeding Heart image


There can be no doubt that the idea of Justice is a vast improvement on private revenge, which leads to an endless and often widening cycle of retributive violence. That is the theme of the Oresteia, but one does not need to go back to the ancient Greeks for illustration; one can see it at work at an even larger scale in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, or the Balkans (where the feuds go back thousands of years).

But Justice does not eliminate retributive violence, it merely tames, controls and organizes it, making it the exclusive privilege of whoever happens to be the governing authority. If the authority administers its retribution in an open, even-handed manner, and the violence it inflicts is perceived to be appropriate and “fair,” then we say that Justice has been served.

So Justice satisfies our impulse to strike back at those who strike us, but by impersonalizing retribution it strives to keep the violence from spiraling out of control. Yet the principle is the same: that while it is wrong in general to hurt people, it is right to hurt those who hurt others.

If we look inside ourselves for the source of that principle, all we find is that anger and hatred we feel when we or those with whom we empathize are hurt. But how can it be good to want to hurt others, for any reason at all? As the old saying has it, Two wrongs do not make a right. Inflicting pain on those who cause pain does not undo the original wrong; it merely increases the sum of the world's misery.

“But if you do not punish wrongdoers, how can you stop them from doing wrong?” is the immediate and fearful cry. This is indeed a serious question, but it is improperly phrased, phrased so as to imply an certain answer. The correct question is simply “How do we stop people from doing wrong?” It is by no means obvious that hurting people is the best way to stop them from hurting people. We at least ought to consider possible alternatives.

The notion that people must be punished for bad behavior and rewarded for good is based on the notion of deserving. The notion that “good” behavior should be rewarded and “bad” behavior punished nearly universal. We like to think there is some grand, cosmic law to that effect. But it is an illusion. There is no such law.

No one deserves anything.

We punish and reward children in order to modify their behavior. That has utilitarian, practical purpose. Society provides various positive and negative incentives for the same purpose. It is certainly useful and sensible for society to encourage socially beneficial behavior and discourage acts that are harmful. But in the real, observable world there is no such thing as just deserts. That is just a projection of our very human desire to make people we like happy and to hurt people we dislike.

So we punish and reward others either to get them to behave in ways we like and approve or to satisfy our own inner demons and angels. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with anything intrinsic to them. It is about us, not them.

Stop and think about that. It means that there is nothing intrinsically “right” about hurting someone who has done something wrong. Hurting people is bad. Always. Absolutely. The only excuse for doing it is to prevent something even worse. If experience shows that it does not have that effect, that the greater wrong is not prevented, we should not inflict the lesser. And if there is another way to avoid that greater wrong, one that does hurt anyone at all, we should travel that path. Punishment, then, merely compounds evil; it does not correct it.

This is a radical notion, but it is not original. Karl Menninger, an American psychiatrist, wrote a well-known book on the evil of punishment, and George Bernard Shaw, had a lot to say about it earlier, but the idea goes back much, much further. One of the most extreme — radical — expressions of the idea was the central teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

[Next: What Jesus Had to Say About It]

Shaw attacked the idea of punishment in a number of essays, but perhaps the most eloquent argument is to be found in the Preface to his extraordinary play Major Barbara.