Why I am a Retributivist (sort of)

Philosophers, even when old dogs (well, I’m 57), should be able to learn a few new tricks. My mind has changed on a number of issues in just the last few years. For one thing, two books, Hilary Kornblith’s Knowledge and its Place in Nature and Robert Fogelin’s Walking the Tightrope of Reason, disabused me of my former naïve, knee-jerk internalism, and I am now an unabashed epistemological naturalist and externalist. Another change of outlook was not brought about by philosophical reading. I think it was the George W. Bush administration that did it. I have become a moderate retributivist in my view of punishment and its justification. In a debate with William Lane Craig twelve years ago, I roundly condemned every form of retributivism as barbaric and irrational. What good, I demanded, is served when the wicked are made to suffer, not because of any justifying good, like deterrence or reforming the offender, but simply because they are deemed to deserve to suffer? I think that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice, Wolfowitz, Feith, Ashcroft, Gonzales, and that whole gang of stock villains straight from Central Casting helped me gain the insight.

Why should despicable people who have done incredibly rotten things suffer for their misdeeds, even if their suffering does not reform them, edify them, deter them or anyone else, or lead to any good consequence? Because they deserve it. Full stop. It is not that allowing the vile to prosper and grow old, fat, sassy, unrepentant, and unpunished conflicts with our ethical intuitions. It is much deeper than that. We simply cannot live with it. Suppose that someone gets roaring drunk, takes to the road at a high speed and causes a terrible accident that kills three teenage girls. The police screw up and do not take him into custody. The next day he catches a plane back to his native Nepal—and lotsa luck ever getting him back for prosecution. This really happened here in Houston just recently. Or think about Charles Keating, who presided over the Savings & Loan debacle in the 1980’s. I saw a clip of him leaving the courtroom during one of his trials, and a frail elderly lady blocked his path. “Mr. Keating,” she quavered, “You took all my life’s savings and now I have nothing.” Keating gave her a sneer and brushed past. He is now out of prison and has never admitted to any wrongdoing. My late, great colleague Stephen Rosoff co-authored a book Profit Without Honor that details the cases of dozens of white-collar criminals whose avarice, cruelty, and callousness almost defy belief. Don’t read it if you are off of your blood pressure medicine.

One of our deepest moral convictions is that the good deserve rewards and the bad deserve punishment. This conviction is probably hardwired, a genetic heritage of our primate past. It is so deep a conviction that I would say it is what Hume called a natural belief. Hume recognized that there were some beliefs—such as the existence of an external physical world and that other people have minds—that are spontaneous, non-inferential, and impervious to skepticism. Much more recently John Searle characterized such beliefs as “default beliefs.” Like the default settings on a computer, they are the beliefs that simply come with an operating human mind, and, unlike a computer’s setting, very hard (I’d say impossible) to change. I think certain moral convictions are default settings, that is, they unavoidably come into play whenever we engage in ethical discourse or reflection. Moral language that lacked the basic notion of desert—that the good deserve reward and the bad deserve punishment—just would not be moral language. It would be like trying to discuss baseball and never mentioning pitching.

Further, our deepest convictions about desert and punishment simply cannot be given a consequentialist justification. Surely it is a good thing that Adolf Eichmann, the coordinator of Hitler’s “final solution” to “the Jewish problem” was captured, put on trial and punished, even if his punishment did not reform him or anyone and even if it deterred no future crimes. Consider Josef Mengele, the “angel of death” at Auschwitz, responsible for the insane “medical” experiments on inmates. Is it not outrageous that he escaped justice for decades and eventually died in a drowning accident in the late 1970’s? Would be not still be equally outraged were we somehow assured that capturing, trying, and punishing him would have served no ulterior good? The utilitarian’s preachments about all pain per se being bad, and justified only by its consequences, have a noble and high-minded sound. In comparison, the retributivist, in saying that some pain is good per se sounds primitive, vindictive, and plain mean.

Things get even worse when we think about the possibility of hell. If retribution is good, and some escape it in this life, would it not be good if they were punished in the next life? I would have to give this a highly qualified “yes.” What qualifies it is this: Some punishments are too horrendous to be inflicted on anybody, however rotten they are. We have not always felt this way. Just a few centuries ago in the most civilized societies, criminals were regularly broken on the wheel, burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, torn apart with red-hot pincers, thrown to wild beasts, stoned, impaled, etc. We, at least in liberal democracies, no longer subject even the worst criminals to such treatment. Why? It is not that criminals have gotten any better; we have. We no longer respect the lex talionis, the demand for strict and equivalent retaliation—an eye for an eye. Even here in Texas we are beginning to see a difference between justice and payback. Sure, we have executions about as often as Dallas has 100 degree days, but we do not hack the ax-murderer to death, we use lethal injection, which is supposed to be painless.

So, a hell of eternal torment is a bit too rich for my blood, even now that I am a retributivist. The traditional doctrine of hell retains the doctrine of lex talionis in its full fury. What about a non-traditional hell? In The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis hints at an idea of hell that seems appealing to me. Lewis, like Jean Paul Sartre (and I bet this is the first time that those two have ever been compared), seems to think that it is the people in hell who make it hellish. Surely, if you had a place occupied by brutal dictators, sadistic serial killers, slave traders, pedophiles, talk radio pundits, TV preachers, and big oil company executives—that would be hell, even if the accommodations were luxurious. Imagine then, hell as a sort of giant Las Vegas casino, with no torments and lots of degrading pleasures, and occupied by really rotten people. I would have no objection to a lengthy sentence (not eternity) in such a hell for many miscreants.

Okay, then, I am now a retributivist. I don’t like it, but there it is. Someone please talk me out of it.

Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    It is consistent to say that retribution is not a function of moral justice on the one hand while conceding that a) no harm is done if the truly guilty truly suffer in a way that does not serve the purpose of good, and that b)we often wish for retribution for what appear to be understandable psychological and perhaps biological reasons, and this wish does not make us "barbaric and irrational".

    If moral justice is about righting wrongs, then it does not include retribution. It is possible to wish for retribution for understandable reasons without confusing retribution with moral justice.

    What is barbaric and irrational is to confuse retribution with and substitute retribution for moral justice.

    Side note – I am skeptical of the idea that the gratification of retribution can be used to ameliorate harm done to a victim. However, if such a scheme may be conceived this way consistent with moral justice.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16008018444588788392 Mark Vuletic

    I am not quite clear about why you do not like being a retributivist. Is it just that (as you suggest) retributivism conflicts with other, equally deep moral convictions you hold, or is it that you also think that very idea of moral desert, no matter how natural, actually is mistaken, after all (or a combination of the two)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Keith –

    Great post. I haven't thought alot about these issues at all (so forgive me if my response is ignorant). Is that the essence of retributive justice – that the punishment of wrongdoing is deserved just for the sake of justice alone, and that there need not be some alternate justification for the punishment? If the punishment brings about some other end (or is required to), then this is a utilitarian view?

    Isn't every instance of punishment for a wrongdoing inherently tied into some alternate ends though? For instance, if we had a living Hitler among us, and allowed him to undergo a re-enactment of the worst recorded torture inflicted under his regime in order to satisfy the demands of justice, aren't there all sorts of intended results that are inherently bound up with the punishment? For example, don't we inflict the suffering on him as a means of forcing him to feel the pain he inflicted on so many others? Isn't there a motive here revolving around getting him to reflect on what he has done, and possibly even develop an empathy that he should have had prior to his actions? An empathy that is hopefully reformative? My intuition here derives from my own experience of retaliating against individuals; almost always I have the conscious thought that I'm going to show them "how it feels". Isn't this also why we have such a strong leaning towards "eye for an eye"-type retribution, in the sense that the punishment ought to fit the crime? If someone inflicts pain/suffering, we're inclined to want them to experience a similar type of pain/suffering? This fit between the type of crime and type of punishment seems to be better explained by a model that allows for some ulterior intended purpose behind the punishment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    More thoughts –

    How well does a naturalistic worldview square with retributive justice? I'm assuming most naturalists are materialists/determinists, deny free will in the libertarian sense, feel that we are largely or solely the product of chance/law, heredity/environment, or some other combination of non-rational forces. I guess the question is – how much sense does moral accountability even make on naturalism? W/o moral accountability, we can still have a sensible punishment in a utilitarian sense, but retributive justice seems to presuppose a strong moral accountability. If an unbroken sequence of a person's prior brain states are what are the cause of their behavior, it seems no more sensible to say they ought to get their just deserts, than it would be sensible to sentence a rifle that happened to be used in a series of murders, to the firing squad.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Smijer – you seem to be begging the question against retributivists when you say "If moral justice is about righting wrongs, then it does not include retribution." If retributivism is true, then it is intrinsically good that one suffer for their crimes. Retribution would be about righting the basic wrong of letting a crime go unpunished.

    And if someone uses gratification of the victim as a justification for retributive justice, this position itself seems to be incompatible with retributive justice. That might work for a mixed utilitarian/retributive perspective, but it is my understanding that a strict retributivist believes that retributive justice is justified as a good in and of itself without reference to ancillary positive effects of the retribution.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments. Much food for thought there. I am rather strapped for time right now, so I only have time to reply to just one point. Mark asks why I do not like being a retributivist. The main objection I can think of right now is that retributivism seems to imply a libertarian view of free will. On the other hand, it fits ill with a compatibilist determinism of the sort I espouse. In a nutshell: I hold that my actions are paradigmatically free if they are determined solely by my beliefs, my values, and my desires. However, what I believe, value, and desire are not things I choose. I believe what seems true to me; I value what seems right to me; and I desire what seems desirable to me. I cannot control, at least not in any direct way, what seems true, valuable, and desirable for me. These are determined, and so even my freest choices are caused.

    Now punishing someone just because they deserve it, and not because it serves any utilitarian ends, seems to require that that person was a completely free agent and the choice to do evil was a choice that was an uncaused cause. On any determinist view, retribution is questionable (punishing for deterrence, etc., is quite compatible with determinism). If our choices are determined, inflicting pain for pain's sake seems unfair. It seems like sheer vindictiveness. It reminds me of the hilarious scene from John Cleese's classic Fawlty Towers in which the car will not start so Basil (Cleese's character) screams at it: "You vicious bastard!!! I'm going to give you a sound thrashing!!!" He proceeds to break off a tree branch and beat the offending vehicle. If any form of determinism is true, isn't retribution like Basil beating the car?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16008018444588788392 Mark Vuletic

    Thank you for the clarification, Keith. Most of my intuitions are the same as yours. On the one hand, I feel a very strong desire to see people punished for some of the things they do, even when it cannot be justified by utilitarian considerations. On the other hand, I think retributivism requires acceptance of libertarianism, and I reject libertarianism.

    I find, personally, that whenever I keep my attention fixed upon my rejection of libertarianism—whenever I see people for what I think they are in my best informed judgment—my desire for retribution actually vanishes.

    The difficulty, of course, is keeping the philosopher's hat on, because the desire for retribution is, as you point out, very deeply entrenched within most people (and some other primates), and will resurface the instant one loses focus upon philosophy. The thing that most helps me to maintain focus (or, for that matter, makes me at all interested in doing so) is my even deeper desire not to inflict pain on others for actions they do not ultimately control in the requisite way, no matter how gratifying it might feel at one level to do so in some cases.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said:
    One of our deepest moral convictions is that the good deserve rewards and the bad deserve punishment. This conviction is probably hardwired, a genetic heritage of our primate past. It is so deep a conviction that I would say it is what Hume called a natural belief. Hume recognized that there were some beliefs—such as the existence of an external physical world and that other people have minds—that are spontaneous, non-inferential, and impervious to skepticism. Much more recently John Searle characterized such beliefs as “default beliefs.” Like the default settings on a computer, they are the beliefs that simply come with an operating human mind, and, unlike a computer’s setting, very hard (I’d say impossible) to change. I think certain moral convictions are default settings, that is, they unavoidably come into play whenever we engage in ethical discourse or reflection. Moral language that lacked the basic notion of desert—that the good deserve reward and the bad deserve punishment—just would not be moral language. It would be like trying to discuss baseball and never mentioning pitching.
    I think two different arguments are being conflated here: (1) We are hardwired to have a certain moral belief X, and (2) A certain moral belief X is required for a comment or discussion to count as a moral one. (1) does not imply (2), and (2) does not imply (1).

    Some hard-wired beliefs might be wrong. Of course we cannot be morally blamed for holding a belief that we cannot help but hold, but what if, based on discoveries of brain science, we figure out a way to un-hardwire this belief?

    Then, if some liberty-loving brain scientist were to un-hardwire this belief from someone, that person would be faced with having to make a real decision on this matter. Also, even those of us left with the hard-wired moral belief will be faced with deciding whether or not it was a danger to morality that the scientist liberated that person, and whether others should also be liberated (if the hardwiring was genetic we would have the question of whether it was morally bad for the liberated person to have children and pass on his/her condition).
    This goes back to Taner Edis' comment some time back about the possibility of science giving us the power to re-shape and re-define human nature, or our own individual natures, including our basic values.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis


    You write: “ Philosophers, even when old dogs (well, I’m 57) [snip]

    I’d say that a philosopher’s youth is measured by the freshness of his ideas.

    Also I understand philosophers, unlike scientists, tend to get better with age.

    One of our deepest moral convictions is that the good deserve rewards and the bad deserve punishment.

    Many theists would agree with you, but I think what you write is wrong. Let me instead suggest that one of our deepest moral convictions is that a good deed is never in vain, and that an evil deed is never a smart choice. It’s not about reward and punishment per se. Understanding justice in terms of reward and punishment is not so much a moral conviction but rather a visceral one, I’d say.

    Okay, then, I am now a retributivist. I don’t like it, but there it is. Someone please talk me out of it.

    If you don’t like it, why be it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    “Okay, then, I am now a retributivist. I don’t like it, but there it is. Someone please talk me out of it.”

    It seems to me, Keith, that you're trying to reconcile your intuitive belief that retribution is a moral good with your rational assessment that such a belief makes no sense. In the end this comes down to which you trust more on this question, your intuition or your reason.

    "Like the default settings on a computer, they are the beliefs that simply come with an operating human mind, and, unlike a computer’s setting, very hard (I’d say impossible) to change."

    I see beliefs as a complex of mental stances, not just one. If I have a feeling of conviction when I articulate a proposition to myself, I'll call that a belief. But that doesn't mean there aren't still belief-related mental stances operating at a lower level which are in contradiction to my articulated belief. To put this more simply, I can accept a belief at an intellectual level without necessarily feeling it at a gut level.

    At an intellectual level I'm a moral anti-realist, because my reason leads me to that conclusion. But my moral realist gut still inclines me to make moral judgements. And I wouldn't want to completely divest myself of such tendencies, even if I could. I think a certain amount of moral judgement is healthy.

    I agree with what Mark says about reducing the desire for retribution. And if you reduce the desire, you are likely to weaken the gut-level belief. I would say that there's considerable overlap between the complexes of stances that manifest as conscious desires and beliefs, so weakening one is likely to weaken the other.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley observes, correctly, that just because a belief is hardwired does not mean that it has a rational justification. I have a spontaneous urge to curse the traffic light that ALWAYS stops me when I'm in a hurry, but that urge, of course, is not rational. Actually, I should not have said that this belief is "probably" hardwired, since this is just a speculation on my part.

    What is not just a speculation, but rather seems undeniable, is that what I call the "basic notion of desert" (BND)–that the good deserve good things and the bad deserve bad things–is so deeply embedded in our moral discourse, that it would be unrecognizable without such an idea. So, if some scientist excised this idea, he would, ipso facto, remove our ability to think about ethics.

    The question, then, is what, if anything, justifies the BND, or do we just have to accept it as an unjustifiable given of our moral discourse? Ten years ago I would have agreed that moral discourse needs the BND, but I would have given it a utilitarian justification: We give good things to good people and bad things to bad people to encourage people to be good and not be bad. Now I see this as too simple because there are counterexamples.

    Consider the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games. Because of bungling or complicity by the West German government, the perpetrators of this massacre went free. The Israeli government decided to hunt them down and kill them. They got several of them, but I think I heard that the last one died in hiding just a few weeks ago. Now assassinating these guys almost certainly served no utilitarian purpose. Almost certainly it did nothing to discourage future acts of terrorism. If anything, it made them look like heroic martyrs. It certainly did not get the perpetrators to think twice and maybe regret their actions. Yet, had the decision to hunt them down come to me, I would have authorized it. Some outrages just cannot stand. If such counterexamples are telling, then it looks like we have to accept the BND as an unjustifiable primitive element of our moral discourse, or give it a retributivist justification.

    Thanks again to everyone for all the insightful comments! I do not have time to reply to all of them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10436785972194527560 Chris

    I found this to be quite thought-provoking, and it did get me to think about my own motivations in these matters.

    You are generally advocating the philosophical legitimacy of retributivist motivation, which I didn't think I'd agree with but about which you and the other commenters have pretty well convinced me.

    However, you keep coming back to the issue of those who have escaped punishment either through legal machinations or simply altogether: the entire Bush Administration, Keating, Hitler, the terrorists at the olympics. Your desire for retribution against those who have done obviously bad things is one thing, the problem of those who escape punishment through some failure of legal or law enforcement systems is quite another. And in raising those who got away with their crimes as part of a discussion about retributivist motivation, I think you're also unwittingly raising the specter of vigilantism, which does give me pause.

    Also, you mentioned the death penalty almost in passing. I wonder if you could expound on how that particular punishment fits into this discussion a little more.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis


    You write: "Mark asks why I do not like being a retributivist. The main objection I can think of right now is that retributivism seems to imply a libertarian view of free will."

    When you wrote in the original post that you didn't like being a retributivist, I thought you meant "like" in an aesthetic sense. Retributivism certainly strikes me as an ugly idea. This is perhaps the main reason why I don't believe in official Christianity's retributivist eschatology. I don’t think it’s reasonable to believe that a perfect person would create a world with such an ugly ending.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    For Keith, I have this yes/no question. Is it possible for there to be a crime (and circumstances under which it is committed) such that whoever commits that sort of crime (under those sorts of circumstances) deserves exactly ten lashes with a whip (where nine lashes would be slightly too lenient and eleven would be slightly too severe? Yes or no?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Chris: Yes I am a supporter, in principle, of the death penalty. I say "in principle" because in practice it is often grossly unjust. I saw a poster one time that read "Capital punishment means that those without the capital get the punishment." Exactly. Yet there are cases where the crime has been of such a particularly heinous nature and where guilt is undeniable, that there simply is no other appropriate punishment, nothing that would leave us viscerally convinced that justice had been done.

    Interestingly there is a situation here in Texas that has a bearing on this point. In 1993 two Houston girls, one 16 the other 14, took a shortcut to get home by curfew. They stumbled across a gang initiation. Six guys took turns raping and beating them, and then they were strangled. Two of the gang members are serving life sentences and one a 40 year sentence because they were minors when the event occurred. Two have been executed, and the third, the ringleader, is scheduled for execution tomorrow night (8/17).

    What do we do with people like that? Life in prison with no chance of parole? One could argue that that is crueler. He was 18 when he committed the crime, and if he lives to be 80, he will have spent 62 years, 78% of his life in prison. Really, though, as one victim's father put it, this guy has now lived 17 years since the crime, longer than his daughter got to live her whole life. The man clearly finds this intolerable, and I agree with him.

    Aeschylus puts it best in The Eumenides. We must tame the Furies, but, if we value justice, we cannot banish them completely.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos: You are right; I did mean "like" in an aesthetic sense as well. An execution is an ugly thing. Were I to view one, I think the feeling would be like the feeling decent people have reported after killing in combat. You recognize that it was necessary and justifiable, but you cannot help having a feeling of shame and disgust.

    Glad to hear your thoughts about hell and punishment. I certainly agree, and I am arguing out these points now in a couple of essays I am writing for publication.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Ted: In answer to your question, no. I agree with Aristotle that such precision is not to be expected in ethics. I can imagine circumstances where I would say ten would be a ballpark figure. Two or three times in my life vandals have smashed out windows in my car. What would be appropriate punishment? Again, as Aristotle said about the amount you should eat, if ten pounds of meat is too much and two too little, we cannot say that six pounds is just right. We have to consider the particular circumstances. Likewise, if three dozen lashes with the cat o' nine tails is too many, and two too few, we cannot say that nineteen is just right. Deciding on the right amount is why we have judges, juries, sentencing guidelines, etc (actually corporal punishment is another old tradition that I am glad not to have around any more).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    Does the offender deserve exactly 19 lashes or not? You seem to be contradicting yourself here. On the one hand, you say "No, such precision is impossible," but then you also say "If we can identify the exact circumstances under which the crime was committed, then, yes, it would be right for a judge or jury to come up with exactly 19 lashes as the punishment." If such precision is impossible, then why not? Is it because we can't know enough, or is it that there just is no fact of the matter there?
    I have another question. Even if we go with approximate punishments (e.g., "He deserves around 20 lashes for what he did"), how do we arrive at such judgments? What is the method to be used?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hi Keith,

    You write: “You are right; I did mean ‘like’ in an aesthetic sense as well.

    But isn’t beauty of some relevance? So many of the truths I know strike me as beautiful, that I tend to be suspicious of any claim that strikes me as ugly. In the field of ethics I hold not one moral belief which I do not experience as being beautiful, so the principle of induction kind of grabs me by the neck and makes me reject retributivism, which is a pretty ugly moral belief. Indeed I think that what we call moral intuition is really our esthetic judgment of choices and desires.

    I have a second reason why I am not a retributivist. This one is highly metaphysical and not at all “scientific”, of a type that a naturalist will probably not find to his liking. For all it’s worth let me explain it here; you may take it as a curiosity if you like:

    [continued in the next post]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from the last post]

    I think it is necessary to build one’s structure of beliefs based on some foundational basic beliefs (as Sam Harris has nicely put it, one needs to take the first step out of the darkness). I hold that these basic beliefs are warranted as long as the resulting noetic structure works well (mainly in a pragmatical sense) and as long as I don’t discover some defeater for them. Now I observe that I do not hold all my basic beliefs with the same confidence. Indeed I tend to be more confident of ethical basic beliefs than of ontological basic beliefs. I think that’s not uncommon. In my life (and I think in yours too) it was ethical considerations that moved my ontology, and not the other way around.

    Here now comes the gist of my argument: In my life a paradigm shifting experience has been to read Jesus’s ethics, by which I mean the bits of moral teaching I experienced as blindingly beautiful when I first read the Gospels. On the other hand the same moral principles, such as to not return evil, and what’s more to return the other cheek, and what’s more to love and help those who hurt you – seemed not only very difficult to realize in my life, but quite unnatural and even foolhardy. This tension moved me to think about what kind of reality would be such that these principles actually made practical/logical sense.

    An idea is that even though each of us experiences life from a different point of view, there is actually only one subject of all human experience, just one experiencer. Experience entails some experiencer, but who that experiencer actually is, is not circumscribed by the experience. So, for example, a possible response to the problem from animal suffering is that it is God who experiences the suffering of animals. That there is only one human subject experiencing the life of all humans, while each experience seems to be autonomous and individual, does not imply any logical difficulties I can see. Nor do I think this idea is unique to myself; I understand that Plotinus, as well as various mystics, express ideas similar to this one.

    Now consider how, on this idea, Jesus’s ethics becomes trivially true. “Love others as yourself” reduces to “love others because they are yourself”. “Do not return evil” reduces to “do not hurt yourself twice”. “Help those who hurt you” reduces to “help yourself when in greatest need”. Suddenly it all makes perfect sense.

    There is some theistic support for this idea: Irenaean theodicy is clearly the strongest explanation for the existence of evil, and according to it we shall all be saved. If by salvation one understands a state of perfect bliss with God, than it stands to reason that no-one will be in that state unless we all are, because bliss cannot be perfect when one knows that others lack it. So theism appears to imply an eschatology where we shall all arrive at the same perfect experiential state at the same moment – which comports very well with the idea that we are all one subject. So: God’ perfection, our experience of evil and the theodicy that explains it, the respective eschatology, Jesus’s ethics – they all fit together under the hypothesis that we are all one.

    What’s more, I claim that there is some empirical evidence for the belief that we are all one subject. In the not uncommon experience of empathy, and for a fleeting moment, we actually feel what the other person is feeling.

    And voila: I am not a retributivist, because, on the strongest ontology I can find, it is a folly to hurt myself by punishing others. And, as we all know from proper experience, being punished does not teach one anything.

    Glad to hear your thoughts about hell and punishment. I certainly agree, and I am arguing out these points now in a couple of essays I am writing for publication.

    Great. Give’em hell.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons


    Is there a fact of the matter that someone can deserve exactly nineteen lashes? No. Is it a fact that someone can deserve some hard-to-define range of around twenty lashes. Sure. Why not? What someone deserves for bad behavior can be a fact, but it is a fuzzy fact. We philosophers tend not to like fuzzy facts, and want things hard-edged and definite. Yet we have to put up with fuzzy facts because they are real. No doctor in the world can tell me, to the minute, precisely how much exercise I should get in a given day. i'd conjecture that there is no such fact as precisely–to the minute–how much exercise I should get each day. Yet it can well be a fact that I should get from thirty minutes to an hour's exercise each day (nor does this mean that exactly forty five minutes is right).

    Likewise with questions of desert. This is why, by the way, there are sentencing guidelines for particular crimes. The guidelines set upper and lower limits for the amount of punishment, while allowing the judge to decide whether it should be harsher or more lenient, depending on the particular circumstances.

    How do we arrive at judgments of desert? Is there a mystery or problem here? We do so all the time. It is one of our most common kinds of moral judgments, done at some level every day. I'm puzzled at your puzzlement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    If facts are fuzzy, it is only because they are epistemologically fuzzy. We have great difficulty in coming to know them. I'm sure there is some ideal amount of exercise to get. It would be that amount that yields the greatest health benefits. I agree that it would be very hard to ascertain what that ideal amount is. I do not see anything analogous to that in the case of deserts, since I see nothing to correspond with the health benefits. Please explain how those two are analogous.

    As for methodology, you still have not answered my question: What is the method by which judgments of desert might be arrived at? I agree that people often do make judgments of desert. To me, they are just emotive ejaculations, like shouting "Hallelujah!" when the home team scores a touchdown. Do you agree that they are like that? If not, then tell me the method.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons


    I just do not see how you can be so sure that there are no fuzzy facts, only a fuzzy understanding of the facts. Do you really think that there is an ideal amount to exercise down to the minute? Down to the second? Down to the microsecond? Even if the fuzziness is epistemological not ontological, it might be intractably so, and not amenable to be known with arbitrary precision, so we have to settle for a range that approximates the precise value.

    The analogy is this: Medicine and ethics are, as Aristotle recognized, practical and not theoretical (or not purely theoretical) enterprises. Judgments in medicine and ethics depend upon practical reasoning (phronesis) rather than theoretical reasoning (theoria), and practical reasoning is not capable of the same degree of certainty as theoretical reasoning. Practical reasoning deals not only with ideals, but with their realization in complex, multifarious contexts. Even if in some Platonic realm of justice there is an exact equation of punishment for every wrong, we cannot hope to know what that is, and can only approximate.

    The method of determining desert, as clearly as we can, is a kind of deliberation, of the sort that juries often do. We try to determine the turpitude of the act versus any extenuating factors. Was there a malicious intent? Was it premeditated? Was there provocation or a perceived threat? Was the perpetrator under duress or under any sort of impairment? Once we ascertain such things, we follow our collective intuitions about what is deserved. So, no, it is not, or should not be, an emotional ejaculation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    I see an analogy between ethics and medicine on a utilitarian or consequentialist model of ethics, but not for a retributivist model. And, yes, there is some ideal amount of exercise so long as different amounts of exercise have different effects in terms of future health. I grant that the fuzziness (our inability to come to know the ideal amount) may be intractable, but there is at least some fact of the matter there. With deserts, it's different. There is no fact of the matter at all. There is no proposition expressed by deserts-talk.

    You speak of an "exact equation of punishment for every wrong." I agree that there could be such a thing on a utilitarian model of punishment, but not for a retributivist model. You also speak of "our collective intuitions about what is deserved." All that I can make of that is "our collective emotional feelings or attitudes about what is deserved," so it's back to the emotional ejaculations after all. If you disagree, then please state the method for settling DISAGREEMENTS between people about what is deserved. Assume that both sides are aware of all the extenuating circumstances, yet disagree about the (approximate) punishment that is deserved. By what method might the fact of the matter be ascertained regarding the (approximate) punishment deserved?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW


    There are lots of questions to which there can be an approximate answer but no precise answer, because the words in which we express the question don't have a precise meaning. At what age did I become an adult? There is no precise fact of the matter because the meaning of the word "adult" is not sufficiently precise. But by any conventional understanding of the word it was certainly between the ages of 10 and 30, so there's an approximate (or "fuzzy") fact of the matter.

    There is a fact of the matter as to how tall I am to the nearest cm (179 cm). But there is no absolutely precise fact of the matter as to how tall I am. An absolutely precise value would require measurement down to units of the Planck length, and the boundary of my body is not precisely defined at that scale.

    Still, I agree with you that there are not even approximate facts of the matter when it comes to moral claims. There is nothing in reality which those propositions can be describing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Ted wrote: “You also speak of "our collective intuitions about what is deserved." All that I can make of that is "our collective emotional feelings or attitudes about what is deserved," so it's back to the emotional ejaculations after all. If you disagree, then please state the method for settling DISAGREEMENTS between people about what is deserved.

    A proposition can only be called objective if there is, even only in principle, some way to settle disagreements about its truth value. On the other hand Keith appears to concede that retributive justice is a matter of "collective *emotional* feelings" – so disagreements would be settled by some collective bargaining.

    Theists of course also put a lot of emphasis on "feelings" – but surely there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy feelings. Feelings for revenge (which I think is what retributive justice is really all about) does not seem to be healthy, not for the individual who suffers from them, and not for the society that suffers the actions inspired by it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13565890121197051580 John W. Loftus

    Keith, I'm a late comer here and did not read all of the comments.

    I remember when you wrote: "Christian depiction of the human condition seems to be spot-on. This is one thing Christianity gets exactly right. There is something deeply and seemingly irremediably wrong with us. We stain everything we touch."


    Jump ahead to this post where you embrace retribution (another Christian doctrine) and I see the connection. If we're that bad then we deserve punished. One seems to go hand in hand.

    I sympathize with both intuitions. I just can't seem to justify the ethics of revenge, even if it is state sponsored, and even if it is what I would want done in some cases.


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons


    On what grounds do you deny that desert ascriptions are actual propositions? You assert that there is no fact of the matter, but this simply begs the question. My assertion is that there are fuzzy facts, facts which are not sharp-edged; their truth conditions, perhaps in principle, are not precisely specifiable, but only fuzzily. Indeed, as RichardW correctly points out, all facts at a certain level become fuzzy. There is no such thing as the exact location of my coffee cup because at a small enough scale boundaries become indefinite. The fuzziness even extends to macro-facts. Is it raining? Is it only sprinkling? Is drizzle rain? What about a heavy mist? Further, your criterion for when something is an objective fact seems to be that there must be some method for definitively settling disagreements about the matter. But by that criterion hardly anything we talk about can be a matter of objective fact. Even in the purest of natural sciences that criterion cannot be met. Outside of the purely formal or mathematical disciplines, there just are no formal proofs or demonstrations that settle things absolutely. In the natural sciences evidence and experimental results will pile up for a hypothesis, and dissent will look ever more ad hoc and desperate, but logical checkmate never occurs. Even in science, you have to persuade rather than compel.

    Are deliberations about desert merely emotional ejaculations? Well, if you ask someone who has just been mugged what the mugger deserves, yeah, you will probably get an emotional ejaculation. This is why the deliberation should be between parties with no direct involvement or vested interest. It is not simply ejaculation because it is guided by principle. Desert ascriptions, indeed, should not be based on a gut response but by such questions as mentioned earlier such as the maliciousness of the intention or the existence of extenuating circumstance. Such considerations do not compel agreement, but, I submit juries do sometimes reach rational conclusions about punishments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    The fact that juries reach rational conclusions about punishments is irrelevant. They might all be utilitarians instead of retributivists. The issue is whether desert-judgments are cognitive or noncognitive. If you think they are cognitive, then (as I said before) please state the method for settling DISAGREEMENTS between people about what is deserved. Assume that both sides are aware of all the extenuating circumstances, yet disagree about the (approximate) punishment that is deserved. By what method might the fact of the matter be ascertained regarding the (approximate) punishment deserved?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons


    I have never served on a jury (always excused whenever I was called–too much education, I guess), but I have served on the university academic honesty committee, which is much like a jury. In discussing cases of cheating and plagiarism, the discussion always focused on matters of personal culpability, i.e., desert. There was hardly ever any discussion of utilitarian considerations, i.e., whether we ought to punish the accused severely to make an example to other students. The issues were always things like this: Did the student know what he was doing? That is, was the infraction intentional or not? Was the plagiarism blatant, indicating a clear intention to cheat, or was it somehow incidental, perhaps just forgetting to properly cite in the rush to finish the paper?

    This has been consistently the case in all discussions, formal and informal, of personal culpability that I have had. The issues are ones of personal responsibility, not utility. Was the person malicious, or merely stupid? Was it a matter of intention or negligence? Had the person been entrapped or somehow tricked into doing the bad thing?, etc.

    Now, you ask what if people are aware of ALL the circumstances, yet still disagree, how is agreement reached?

    First, recall that my claim is that desert ascriptions are no different from many other classes of factual claims in that we think there is a matter of objective fact involved, though there is no definitive way to settle what it is. As I pointed out, even in the sciences, dissidents are almost always left with some interpretive "wiggle room," though, to their colleagues, their dissent looks increasingly perverse and ad hoc as evidence builds. Even in the sciences the smoking gun or the crucial experiment that definitively settles the issue are hard to come by, but rational consensus still emerges.

    Rational debate is possible over different opinions about desert ascriptions. Suppose you and I are both on the honesty committee, we agree as to all the facts–the student did knowingly and blatantly plagiarize–yet I think the offender deserves to fail the course, and you think only a failing grade on the plagiarized assignment. Suppose we are both open minded and reasonable (as, indeed, we are. ahem.). How does the debate proceed?

    See the next post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons


    My first question to you would be how seriously you take honesty violations, that is, I would ask for a clarification of your values. I take these violations very seriously indeed. I see cheating and plagiarism as blatant assaults on the most basic values of intellectual inquiry, the most basic values that we as academic professionals stand for. If you have grounds for regarding it as not so serious, as more of a venial than a mortal sin, we can air out all of our reasons. In the end, should I convince you of the seriousness of the infraction, then I think you will agree with me that the more severe punishment is deserved.

    Can either of us compel the other to assent with knockdown arguments? No. That is just the nature of such (philosophical) discussion. Are our debates rational, appealing to principle and not prejudice? Yes. Are they sheer emotional tirades? No. Can rational consensus be reached? Yes.

    Actually, for philosophers to insist on a definitive means of settling disagreements over objective matters seems quite ironic. We think that there are matters of fact in our philosophical disagreements. For instance, you think it is a matter of fact that desert ascriptions are non-cognitive and I think it a matter of fact that they are cognitive. Yet in philosophy, if anywhere, it is plain that there is no definitive method of settling disputes and that disagreements tend to continue indefinitely (as, I fear, this one is).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17239457772830013242 tmdrange

    I agree that our disagreement is unlikely to be resolved. I claim that scientific and philosophic disputes can in principle be settled by some sort of method. The method may not be "definitive" (a term that you use, but I didn't), but at least there is some method to appeal to. That is not the case with desert-ascriptions. There would be no way to even begin (assuming that both parties agree on all the facts of the case).
    You give the example of whether the student deserves to flunk the course or just flunk the exam and you say it depends on how seriously the disputants regard honesty. Well, one guy rates honesty at level 9 and so(?) the student serves to flunk the course, while the other guy rates honesty only at level 8 and so(?) the student only deserves to flunk the exam. Where do they go from there? To me it's just different emotive ejaculations and there is nowhere to go. On similar committees on which I served, utilitarian considerations were brought in (e.g., "What would best help reform this student?") and progress there seemed more likely.
    I do not claim that all scientific and philosophic issues will, or even can, be completely resolved, but at least there is an avenue of debate for them, unlike "debates" over desert-ascriptions, which seem to me to be non-starters.

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