Punishment and Privation

Punishment and Privation June 7, 2013

In Milbank’s view, Augustine violates his own privative doctrine of evil, which gives no “ontological purchase to dominium , or power for its own sake,” when he allows that punishment might take a purely positive form. For Milbank, “in any coercion, however mild and benignly motivated, there is still present a moment of ‘pure’ violence,” because “externally and arbitrarily related to the end.” A schoolmaster’s cane “has no intrinsic connection with the lesson he seeks to teach.” Eventually, the disciplined student might come to acknowledge the lesson, but “the lesson immediately and intrinsically taught here must be the power of one over another.” While these moments of pure violence are unavoidable and may even be part of an overall opposition to violence, still, in ways that Augustine failed to grasp, “punishment is always a tragic risk” because it always encloses a moment of violence ( Theology and Social Theory, 419-420).

I agree with Milbank about the risks of punishment, but I deny the tragedy. Violence does not inhere in all punishment. Though Scripture is consistent with Augustine’s privatio boni insofar as it denies evil any ontological purchase, it does not treat every negation as evil. Milbank’s analysis also assumes a notion of equality that leads him to think that teaching a lesson about superior power is inherently evil. But why is it wrong to teach someone to honor and obey authorities? Oddly, given his hostility to modern voluntarism, Milbank makes the good of punishment dependent (retroactively, as it were) on the will of the one punished.

Though he also follows Augustine’s privation theory, Thomas Aquinas offers a more satisfying view in his discussion of punishment ( ST I-II, 87, 7). Punishment is good, though it always involves a degree of privation. Bodily health and wholeness is a good, and a beating that causes pain is by definition an “evil.” But, Thomas adds, some privations are evil only relatively; physical discipline is such a case, since being deprived of the good of bodily health might serve the greater good of the soul. Punishment is not an evil simplicter , but only relatively. He describes such punishments as medicinal. Punishment is “evil” like medicine is evil (which is evil because it costs money, and so deprives the sick of some of his material well-being).


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