Forward Thinking: Whether or How to Punish People

“Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful…the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had–power.” ~ Nietzsche

Morality is a necessary, ineradicable, and irreplaceable tool for creating social trust, cooperation, reliability, order, stability, prosperity, unity, autonomy, fairness, justice, loyalty, care, love, and more vital goods. But moralities do not only rely on our most kindhearted, noble, pleasant, or merciful traits in order to function.

Whatever their positive results or their objectively defensible reasons to exist, they are rooted in dangerous and presumptuous power dynamics and sometimes involve people taking it upon themselves (individually or collectively) to inflict pain on others. (These traits led Nietzsche to suspect morality as hypocritical in the
extreme and to call himself an immoralist, partially as a matter of protest.)

So, for my latest forward thinking prompt I asked morally conscientious and judicious bloggers everywhere to tease out how and when or whether we might know it was ever appropriate to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers towards our friends, parents, peers, colleagues, or other adults in our lives. I was heartened to see how much they disliked the task. Relatively few even dared an answer and those who did all expressed an admirable humility.

Andrew Tripp went so far as to (in so many words) conscientiously object even to participating in the thought experiment of when it would be right to be each other’s “moral enforcers”:

In this case, I believe that norms have to be questioned more thoroughly than perhaps any aspect of society, for, to borrow from Adorno, we know via our own experiences that our society does not really operate under any sort of widely held ethical truths; thanks to the implementation of capitalistic-driven mass media, amongst plenty of other reasons, any sort of social contract that Americans ever ascribed to certainly does not exist anymore. Consumerism and other  material concerns have replaced any responsibility wider society might have felt towards their common man. With public ethics no longer having any objective core, we find ourselves in a state of nihilism.

Thanks to this, Adorno claims, claims about morality cannot be objective; only scientific statements, about fundamental empirical facts, can ever be given objective validity. Morality becomes prejudicial, making it impossible to make good decisions between opposing claims of ethical subjectivity. Thus, morality becomes a tool of power, useful only to make its espouser more attractive. And that influence created is backed not by ethical validity, but the material
assets of the person backing a moral vision.

Andrew explains that he wants to

indicate the danger of thinking, even in the abstract as it is laid out in the prompt, the idea that we can be so set in our morality that we then believe ourselves to have the authority to punish others for violating our own moral code. I cannot ever imagine myself being so certain of rights and wrongs that I would take it upon myself as a duty to discipline another because they did or said something that contradicted my views in some way. It seems like a position borne of ego, and not a terribly moral one in and of itself at that.

So, that’s my answer, and a question to all of you: could you ever be so certain of your morality, so affirmed, so unconcerned at the possible holes in your own reasoning, that you would take it upon yourself to become an ethical constable? I certainly don’t think that I could.

I agree with Andrew’s anxieties here. Being well versed in Nietzsche I am highly sensitized to the ways that moralities, even if they can attain to essential degrees of objectivity as I try to argue, are in practice systems of power and domination, and so entail a great deal of temptation towards abuse. They regularly allow people to indulge their cruelest, most self-righteous, judgmental, and pitiless sides with the clearest conscience. And so I can understand that someone inclined towards compassion and epistemic humility would be disinclined to set himself up as a “moral enforcer”.

But, nonetheless the question of when to punish people still cannot be avoided, as I spelled out in a piece on blaming people (which is a form of punishment) a while back:

And when it comes to blaming, we must be constructive–we must be aimed at the other’s good and not creating a fiction of an undetermined free will which is malignant and blamable as a deliberate purveyor of evil itself. We must recognize that people are usually far more ignorant than evil. We must appreciate that people do things under psychological and social circumstances different from our own which would make them more understandable psychologically. In this way we should not paint them as evil when blaming, but just focus on what it would be constructively best for them to feel and to do, going forward, if they can.

But then why blame at all? Because we have to. And I write about blaming not because I’m a judgmental asshole but because if we are going to do it–and given the necessary dynamics of social enforcement of necessary group cooperation we inevitably will–then I want us to have an understanding and practice of blaming that is as rational, fair, humane, and conducive
to actual human flourishing as possible. I want the opposite of absolutist, arbitrary, capricious, superstitious, judgmental, self-serving, hypocritical blaming and shaming.

The only way to do that is not to eschew all systematic parsing of moral rightness and wrongness as the stuff of moralists or religionists. Rather it means being even more careful and more precise in how we make such judgments so that when we inevitably slip back into everyday practices of blaming and shaming we do not unwittingly repeat their mistakes. If you want to dispense entirely with blaming and shaming instead and be consistent, then you’re going to have to explain what brand new mechanisms you will have for cultivating and maintaining social cooperation in others without those mechanisms that our psychologies have naturally bequeathed us. And you’ll have to explain how you will get creatures who are disposed psychologically and socially to such moral dispositions to so assiduously abandon them with you, even against their own natures.

Eventually whatever you come up with is going to look like a morality, i.e., a way of regulating, shaping, and changing behaviors of people. This is what I realized and why even though I hate moralism, I think the immoralist option is just untenable. Ironically, if you will, morality is a necessary evil. We will inevitably have norms and mechanisms of enforcing them.
With this will always come power relations that are open to great abuse by the careless, the selfish, the authoritarians, and the masochists. The best we can do is to counter them with constructive alternative moralities that both in practice and in theory are as rational, humane, pluralistic, consistent, fair, benevolent, pleasant, and conducive to human flourishing as we can. So that’s my constructive project.

Shira is also loathe to punish or encourage punishment too, but she recently came across research about not only how effective but how and essential altruistic punishment (punishments in which the punisher herself is willing to pay a cost just to enforce norm conformity in others) seems to be in getting people to cooperate for the greater good (even the punished individuals’ own). (The research is summarized excellently here for the curious and the skeptical.)

Shira responds to the evidence:

When I read that, whole regions of my worldview exploded. (For one thing, I owe a lot more respect to the theists who worry about what happens to morality in the absence of punishment.) A bit of web searching convinced me that this experiment was not only valid,
but it made sense. For instance, it turns out that

altruistic punishment activated the dorsal striatum, which
has been implicated in the processing of rewards that accrue as a
result of goal-directed actions. Moreover, subjects with stronger
activations in the dorsal striatum were willing to incur greater costs
in order to punish. Our findings support the hypothesis that people
derive satisfaction from punishing norm violations and that the
activation in the dorsal striatum reflects the anticipated
satisfaction from punishing defectors.

(The fact that there is a neurological underpinning convinces me that this behavior is part of what makes us human.)

So, it seems that innate morality, in the absence of punishment, is insufficient to gain us the fruits of non-zero-sum interaction between bare acquaintances. For that, we need rules and punishments for those who transgress the rules. So, then, how SHOULD we punish people for
moral failures? Should we, for instance, punish our friends even at the risk of losing their friendship? That would seem to be a form of altruistic punishment, aka, social glue.

For myself, when I contemplate a question like this I often think in terms of stance. That is, what stance — posture, facial expression, tensed and relaxed muscles, etc. — do I associate with the act of punishing my friends? Do I want to assume that stance? For me, punishing someone implies looming over him or her, with or without angry expression, clenched fists, etc. And no, that’s not a stance I want to take with friends… or with anyone, really. I prefer to approach every person with a relaxed, open stance that conveys interest and goodwill.

So I think my approach still has to be to reason with my friends about moral failings. (This assumes that no one is being hurt at the moment of confrontation — but even then, my concern in such a case has to be helping the victim rather than punishing the perpetrator.) I find that
my preferred actions are not different than they were before I learned this scientific information.

Perhaps I am thereby shirking my duty to enforce pro-social norms. But I suspect that the optimum number of punishers within a population will not be 100%. About all I can do is continue to think about this new information… oh, and be a bit more sympathetic to people who express a desire to punish people for their transgressions!

So how should we punish if it’s something we’re inevitably going to do and maybe even need to do? Kasey at Valprehension has a fantastic post with careful philosophical distinctions about how the standards any punishment must meet in order to be legitimized.

I think the thing that I need to establish up front is that none of us have the right to inflict “punishment” on most of the people in our lives. Punishment, as I see it, can only be meted out by someone who is in a position of legitimate authority over another person. And by ‘legitimate’, I generally mean consensual, either at the personal level, or at a communal/societal level. At the personal level, consensual authority would exist if I were to ask someone to help me police my behaviour in some way and we agreed in advance what consequences might occur if I fail in my desired behavioural change.

At the communal level, legitimate authority is established when people collectively agree on what behaviours cannot be tolerated, and on how they will be dealt with. A good example of would be a well-executed anti-harassment policy (wherein a person violating someone else’s
boundaries is removed from the environment in which the policy is enforced). Of course, not all communally or societally established authority is legitimate, but thankfully, I haven’t been asked to deal with the communal level here, so I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

So, the personal level, then… there are things that we can do, and generally should strive to do whenever we have the necessary energy (in escalating order):

1. Express your disapproval. If someone you know is doing something morally wrong, make it clear that you do not condone their behaviour, and wherever possible, explain why it is unacceptable. Sometimes people don’t realize the moral implications of their actions. Sometimes they are simply depending on not being called on it. Making it clear that you disapprove can be a powerful tool in changing a person’s behaviour.

2. Explicitly refuse to be complicit. If the person in question is trying to recruit your support (even passively) or if keeping quiet about the moral failure in question makes you feel morally culpable, make it clear that you will not be silent about their actions if you continue to be aware of them. Expressing disapproval while also remaining mum and allowing the moral wrong to continue sends mixed messages, and undermines your expressed disapproval.

3. Follow through. If the person continues to share the details of their transgressions, do not remain silent. Either warn the people who stand to be harmed by the wrong-doer, or bring the information to someone in a place of legitimate authority (i.e. if someone is stealing from their workplace, the managers have legitimate authority to punish them by firing them, and if someone is breaking a law, then the legal system has the (admittedly dubious in some cases) authority to deal with that).

4. Remove yourself from their life. In extreme cases, moral failing may be so great that you feel morally culpable simply for associating with that person. If your continued presence in their life is enabling their continued moral failing in any way (including simply by sending the message that their behaviour will not hurt them socially) that you don’t feel comfortable with, you are well within your rights to avoid associating with that person. for coworkers, this would involve a refusal to interact with them in any non-work-related capacity.

These tactics all work best with people with whom you have voluntary relationships (friends, family (you don’t choose your family, but generally once you’re an adult, you can choose whether you will associate with them), and the like). With coworkers, deciding whether or not it is worth employing these tactics involves weighing a lot of external factors, including your job security and your ability to continue to do your job effectively, and the like. And we don’t always have the strength or energy to stand up against every poor moral decision made by the people in our lives. But if you want to act, and you want to do so without yourself exercising illegitimate authority (which would itself be morally wrong), these are the kinds of things
you can do to discourage continued moral failings.

Click through to the whole article to see their rant about why she doesn’t think it’s fair to make their partner sleep on the couch just because they don’t want to sleep with him when they’re angry.

Rachel Marcy at Ripening Reason also wanted to focus away from punishing and instead centered in on the question of what the transgressed can do to focus on their own well-being. Very intriguingly and promisingly, for her punishing transgressors sounds to me more like an incidental necessity to the process of protecting the trangressed, rather than an end in itself or something focused directly on either the rehabilitation or retribution against the transgressor.

I’m limiting my response to non-criminal moral transgressions in adult interpersonal relationships, although I suppose much of this does still apply if someone you know commits a

I am disinclined to frame this topic in terms of punishment or moral enforcement. Rather, I would discuss the response to a transgression in terms of the safety and well-being of the transgressed. There are two basic options to achieve this, although they certainly aren’t
mutually exclusive:

1. The transgressed can withdraw from the transgressor, at least for a period of time.

2. The transgressed can (non-violently) confront the transgressor, in order to assert themselves and seek resolution, if that’s what they wish.

I don’t consider either of these options to be focused on punishment, but rather on the injured party establishing appropriate boundaries. I suppose it is a form of moral enforcement to say, “What you did was wrong, and it hurt me,” but I think the goal is to place value on the welfare of the person who has been hurt, and to hold the hurtful person to account for their actions. But the idea of punishment for it’s own sake, because of an “eye for an eye” mentality, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

In general I would argue for mediation that occurs at a pace led by the person who was hurt, but I recognize that it is sometimes more beneficial to simply cut ties. I also don’t think the injured party has an obligation to forgive. If it’s important to them to do so, that’s fine, but the idea of forgiveness is sometimes used to manipulate people who have been hurt. Sometimes, even framing someone’s response to injury in terms of punishment is an attempt at  manipulation. In response to the accusation, “Why are you punishing me? You’re so unforgiving,” someone can say, “You hurt me and I’m not willing to talk to you right now, for my own well-being.” While I don’t think the perpetrator should be allowed to go without scrutiny, I think it’s better to keep the focus on the welfare of the person who was affected. It prevents the transgressor from rounding up support, and without social support for their actions, they may actually change their behavior.

In some cases, particularly in professional relationships, it may also be highly beneficial to involve a third party.

She goes on to consider more kinds of particular scenarios in overview.

Finally, Matt Recla teases out some valuable distinctions that make him dubious of the effects of punishment outside of direct interpersonal agreements to be personally accountable to one another. He starts off discussing contexts where there are actually accountability agreements:

If, for example, you have an accountability partner of some sort, where the partnership is based on mutual motivation toward a common goal, then it would be incumbent on you to point out the moral failure of the partner when he or she fails to fulfill the aim in view of which the partnership was formed. A marriage would be a formal example, but most of the informal partnerships I can think of would be constructed around goals or aims that aren’t specifically moral, such as exercising regularly or staying away from particular foods. As a Christian teenager, I’m fairly certain I was involved in groups designed to be accountable for one’s sexual purity. In these types of situations in which the accountability was established beforehand, punishment would presumably take the form of whatever was decided beforehand as well.

The more complex situation, though, is one in which someone in your circle of social influence commits a moral transgression about which they had no explicit contract with you.

Matt relays the story of someone’s impotent attempts to penalize another by refusing to go to a wedding of which he did not morally approve and draws conclusions:

it seemed that the acquaintance was only temporarily hurt and then moved on while the punisher maintained a strong sense of indignation and self-righteousness that was compounded by the fact that his/her punishment was ineffective. The evidence is anecdotal, but it tells me that “punishing” a peer for a moral failure in unlikely to be effective if the goal is to chasten the individual’s behavior. If the intent is to distance oneself from a perceived moral impurity, which may be legitimate in certain cases, the “punishment” in the form of a withdrawal of relationship is not primarily intended as punishment but a cessation of association, which may or may not have that effect and should be a point of indifference
to the initiator anyway.

If a moral failure is regulated in some other social or legal sphere, such as a physical assault, then your personal punishment is unlikely to be significant in comparison. In addition, if you are aware of a moral failure that is also a legal transgression and decide to punish the person yourself rather than inform legal authority, it is unlikely that you would be sufficiently protected from blame, if the transgression was uncovered, by explaining that you punished the moral failure yourself.

In short, then, we live in a society in which there is some overlap between moral failure and institutional punishment, as there should be. It seems to me that if a moral failure is a legally punishable offense, the institutional punishment takes precedence over your personal punishment (although, as mentioned above, this might be augmented by termination of the relationship with the offender, the aim of which would primarily be to preserve oneself and not “punish” the other). If, as in my example above, the moral failure is not legally punishable, the scope of any punishment is going to be limited and will be of significant cost to the punisher as well. Assuming that the punisher and the offender are peers, I consequently see little ground or benefit for aiming at punishment.

Eventually he concludes,

Outside of institutional logic or the scenarios constructed above, I cannot see a situation in which it would be safe to assume that the moral failure for which the offender would be
punished is understood and shared by the offender. There is no objective reference against which to administer punishment. Common decency is too platitudinous to support personal punishment for moral failure. In my capacity solely as an individual, in relation to peers,
who am I to judge?

If you would like your thoughts on values to be profiled in this Forward Thinking series, consider writing a blog post in reply to Libby Anne’s new question, “What Do We Owe Our Parents?” Head over to Love, Joy, Feminism for details!

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • BethC

    I like this series. Thanks.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for reading as always, Beth :)

  • Editor B

    I guess my post either got lost in the shuffle or didn’t make the cut. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter, because I too found this a deeply unpleasant topic to contemplate, and I don’t feel my writing was particularly inspired. Anyhow, in the interest of completeness, here’s the link.

    Though I didn’t enjoy it, I do appreciate the exercise.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, it got lost in the shuffle, completely accidentally. I apologize. I realized it was missing only shortly afterwards and have been meaning to add it soon as I had time to properly integrate it with the rest.

  • http://underconstruction Colin Mackay

    “But then why blame at all? Because we have to. And I write about blaming not because I’m a judgmental asshole but because if we are going to do it–and given the necessary dynamics of social enforcement of necessary group cooperation we inevitably will–then I want us to have an understanding and practice of blaming that is as rational, fair, humane, and conducive to actual human flourishing as possible.”
    An interesting position. You assume in this that the person you may seek to punish CANNOT evade the punishment by merely leaving the group. I can’t help but wonder how far you would go in the pursuit of you’re justice…war? The emerging world, it strikes me, will be formed upon co-operation and separation, not enforcement. I see a schism afoot.

  • rumitoid

    I am taking a little detour but hope to arrive at your point fairly soon.
    There is an expression that I put a lot of faith in for a while: “No one can make me mad, sad, or glad.” The point being to take responsibility for my own emotions. Yet there are those who endured great abuse as children for whom the ability to cope or to have a choice in their response is highly limited. Most live reactionary lives where “good” is all about survival. Different mechanisms are used but safety is paramount. Their morality is primitive and their “reward” structure is usually perverse. How to punish these wounded souls gets complex and needs a very enlightened mind.

    I see morality as a process of non-attachment that begins with the notion of right and wrong not based on reward and punishment but on the aesthetic of our interconnectedness. The “wrong” is a failure to maintain, strengthen, and enhance relationships that are at root interdependent: a nexus of love. Love is not moral per se: it is, for me, the genuine concern for another’s ultimate well-being. It is more about growth and healing than good and evil. Much more to this but I have to run. Thanks for a great and (once again) thought-provoking article.

  • rumitoid

    Don’t know why I am bothering to re-post; like Editor B, I was censored as well. Healthy discussion? Unfortunate. Of course, the implication of such a move, if allowed to be noted, is that I was somehow insulting or too stupid to survive “moderation.” I will briefly reiterate what I said and hope for a more open-mind.

    I see morality as a process of non-attachment, of maturing beyond the strictures and motives of self-centerednesss. In the end, Self-interest cannot escape communal interest. Morality, in effect, is the aesthetics of our interconnectedness. It is not cut and dry right or wrong, rules or ethics of correct behavior and the punishment of bad behavior. Instead, morality is, as I see it, about the aesthetics of our interconnectedness: how to maintain, strengthen, and enhance relationships with all that we meet. Love is the foundational principle. In society, each person is a Nexus of Love, directly or indirectly intimate with all. Nothing is done in isolation. To act for the ultimate well-being of all that we encounter, is to also promote the safety, growth, and ultimate well-being of ourselves.

    What is for anyone’s ultimate well-being? The greatest freedom and deepest joy possible for that unique person. Can anyone rightly discern those things? No. But that is not necessary. The tools of morality are not strict standards, ideals, or rules of how to behave and assign proper blame or punishment; the tools of morality are a heart and mind open to the highest ideals of another. If an individual is slamming the president or making openly racist statements, or perhaps pilfering from their company or beating their wife, there is, no matter how perverse or wrong it may appear to us, a perceived “good” or ideal. It is an absolute that we all act for good, as it suits our perspective or worldview. We focus far, far too much on behavior.

    Getting to the spirit of what is past what is usually seen as immoral behavior insists on a degree of non-attachment to self and its common demands and defenses. Morality is more about coming to know oneself–one’s faults, limits, desires, wounds, attributes, and so forth–than anything else. Placing an outward set of standards, ideals, or rules, with its complementary set of rewards and punishment, helps to inhibit real morality, for compliance is always influenced from outside a person.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Don’t know why I am bothering to re-post; like Editor B, I was censored as well. Healthy discussion? Unfortunate. Of course, the implication of such a move, if allowed to be noted, is that I was somehow insulting or too stupid to survive “moderation.” I will briefly reiterate what I said and hope for a more open-mind.

      You weren’t censored. You were sent to moderation for some random reason, not due to any personal animus and then I did not have the time to see or moderate any comments. You posted right before I went to teach a class and I have not had access to my blog again until I got home just now. I have multiple jobs, I cannot be counted on to approve every post within two hours. You should not take things so personally or make accusations of censorship so cavalierly.

  • Duke Eligor

    I still don’t believe in “altruistic punishment” or anything of the kind. Anything that hurts people I care about hurts me, and I don’t like that kind of thing. It makes me angry, and it makes me sad.

    I once had a good friend who unfortunately suffered from a mental illness (bi-polar, a truly horrible disease), and used weed as an escape. It didn’t react well to his condition; it wrecked his life and even sent him to the hospital on several occasions. One time, he had a mental breakdown, and me and a friend of mine spent the day with him in his horrid state, vouching to his mother that we would see his life turn around if we could. Later, he became more balanced, and promised to fulfill the promise we made on his behalf: to take his meds, and we would be there for him. And for a while, he did get his act together: took his meds, took night classes, and really cleaned things up for himself. He inspired me with his resolve, I’m not afraid to admit. We staked our honor on our belief in him, and it was showing by his own efforts and talent (of which he had oodles, let me tell you…).

    Then, one day, he got back into his old habits, started smoking weed and hanging out with his old friends (the bad influences). And worst of all, he stopped taking his meds. He dropped out of college, lost his job, and his life hit the skids again after such an otherwise inspiring recovery. We tried to get him back on his path, mostly focusing on getting him to take his meds again. It didn’t work. Eventually, I had had enough. He betrayed me, and betrayed our other friend, not because he was a bad person, but because of his illness. Still, this was a person neither of us could be around anymore. Our friend wrecked his own life, and we could not let him wreck ours, even if it wasn’t really his fault.

    So, I (and my buddy) cut off contact with this dude. It was one of the hardest things to do in both our lives, because we loved him dearly. It wasn’t for his benefit: we had already done as much as we could to help him. It was simply a matter of conscience and the refusal to be dragged down into that world. I still remember the last phone conversation I had with him: it was like watching a friend spiral away into an abyss, and myself unable to help him, but knowing full well I could not follow. After that, I refused his calls, and we haven’t spoken since.

    To this day, I regret the turn of events that drove us apart. I wish things had turned out differently. There are times early in the morning when I imagine he would call me, and we would make up, and it would be like old times again. But I know that isn’t to be. I don’t regret my actions, as they were right; I just regret the cruelty life delivers upon us sometimes, and how we have to react to it. I sometimes imagine him having gotten his life together and living happy. Not for anything I’ve done. Just for him. As if we could at some point just nod at each other, and knowingly get on with our lives.

    I don’t believe in altruistic punishment. It never feels gratifying. All I can wish for is the beneficence of a fellow human being, a good person, who had hefty problems to overcome. And, I’m left with my own mistakes, and impotence to help. But maybe I’m ready to extend that thought to others, as best I can. Hence, why I hold back the urge to punish, and send the urge to care as my vanguard.

  • Matt Thornton

    Fascinating thread – this is a very important question. One thought to add to the mix: When you punish to enforce a norm, I think the question of why is more important than the questions of when or how.

    If the punishment is to maintain group identity (everyone here wears a blue hat, you came in today with a red hat, you need to change if you want to continue associating with this group) then much of what has been said makes sense. By definition, groups need boundaries, and enforcing those boundaries would be expected. I might like to be a member of the baseball team, but if I insist on throwing the ball into the stands every time it comes to me, it’s legitimate for the group to reject me as a member.

    If, though, the punishment is for the “improvement” of the individual (e.g. you shouldn’t gossip) or, more fuzzily, for improving the individual’s chance of success in some endeavor (e.g. you have to stand in the corner till you learn to do your homework on time) I think the ‘why’ gets a lot more important than the what or the how of the punishment. As one person pointed out above, if I’m going to nominate myself as an enforcer, I need to do some pretty serious soul searching. Why is it so important to *me*, that *you* be punished? In this case, an appeal to social cohesion seems unsatisfying.

    The simple example in the individual case is that the target of your punishment has asked you to take action, and you have agreed (say, an exercise buddy). At another end of the spectrum, I can have the job, agreed in whatever tribe we’re talking about, of being the enforcer whether you as a member of that tribe want me to or not. I think this is what someone above referred to as ‘legitimate’ authority, like a judge.

    In all other cases, I don’t think the ‘right’ to punish can be separated from the individual will to punish. Said another way, the question isn’t should you punish, but what good will come of your punishment. If you are acting outside a proscribed/accepted authority role (exercise partner, cop, judge, satirist, etc) then you’re pretty much freelancing, and engaging in mercenary morality. Further, much of the freelance punishment that I see has far more to do with the priorities/desires of the person punishing than the improvement of the person being punished.

    Twisty stuff – thanks again for raising the questions.


  • Y

    We can skip the whole discussion about universal right and wrong in relationships if we are willing to stand alone (or in small groups) and defend our own personal boundaries without the oversight of religion or government agencies.

  • baal

    Thanks for this summary and I’m in the process of reading the linked articles. I wish more had been said on the putative value (or not) of changing the dominant narratives via intentional use of extreme language, e.x. Poorly thought out misogynist rants on youtube. That video goes viral due to re-tweets, articles and blog posts. An intentional group of people express unlimited hate for the misogynist in the comments section of each venue.

  • insanityranch

    I cannot say anything about the scholarly critics of Richard Dawkins, because I have not read even one word of them. To be honest, I have not read _The God Delusion_ either; I’ve picked it up four or five times and put it down as indigestible. After reading this post, I went to Amazon and clicked on “look inside” and came, almost immediately, to this paragraph:

    “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

    Now that is an empirically testable statement, and I submit that it is a false statement. About 5.76 billion religious people claim membership in one or another religion, and it is simply, factually incorrect that the “vast majority” of these people hold beliefs as vicious as those of the leaders of extremist Christianity and Islam.

    I myself grew up in a community where nearly everyone was an adherent of either Catholicism or mainline Protestant denominations, where religious affiliation was a community value, and nearly everyone I knew growing up was decent, morally upright, and kindly. They were also committed to education, and I believe they still are — at least until the recent shale oil-boom madness, my home state of North Dakota had one of the best public education systems (K-12) in the nation. (Our universities were not world-class, but then, given a sparse tax base, that isn’t surprising.)

    I appreciate that Dawkins may have something important to say to people caught in the toils of oppressive religious traditions. But I would argue that it those people are actually unrepresentative of the “vast majority of believers”. And I am not surprised that the actual, decent, vast majority of believers are unimpressed or even put off by his writings on religion.

    (P.S., I HAVE read and very much profited from his writings on evolution.)

    • Daniel Fincke

      Even those kindly, upright people, however, when asked theological questions can be induced to sound like Robertson or Haggard. Probably 40%-60% at least would believe some bizarre things of the order Dawkins attacks.

      The question is whether their general decentness and ability to compartmentalize their rotten, silly, or supercillious religious views makes those explicit religious beliefs a matter of total indifference.