Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment

To support the first and second premises of their general argument, Feser and Bessette must argue that punishment is a good thing.  Their case can be set out in four steps:

  1. We observe in the world that, for the most part and when things are working properly, people who act in accordance with the in-built teleology of things end up with pleasure and happiness while people who act against the in-built teleology of things end up with pain and misery.
  2. We reason that what happens for the most part and when things are working well reflects the natural teleology built into the world.
  3. We conclude that actions in accord with natural teleology have an ordering to pleasure and happiness while actions against natural teleology have an ordering to pain and misery.
  4. When someone acts badly but ends up without pain or misery, we see this as a violation of step 3 and so we inflict pain on him in order to bring things back into line with the natural teleology whereby bad actions are ordered to pain and misery.

Let me offer the argument in F&B’s own words.  It’s a lengthy text, but the argument seems so odd to me that I want the reader to see it spelled out—unless you’re in a hurry, in which case skip to the critique after these long quotations:

We might say, then, that just as a fully healthy specimen of a tree will grow thick roots and just as a fully healthy specimen of a lion will hunt and will possess a thick mane, so too will human happiness, in the sense of the realization of the ends that nature has set down for us, be associated with pleasure. And just as a tree with weak roots or a lion disinclined to hunt will typically grow sickly, so too will a failure to realize the ends that nature has set for us be associated with pain. There is in the order of the world a natural association between, on the one hand, pleasure and the realization of the ends that follow from our essence and, on the other hand, pain and the failure to realize these ends. The connection is not without exceptions, any more than every single tree has healthy roots or every single lioness nurtures her cubs. But like these latter examples, it is the norm, the way things tend to go when everything is functioning as it should.

The relevance to punishment should be obvious. An evildoer has deliberately acted in a way contrary to the ends toward which his nature has directed him. And he has done so in order to secure some pleasure that such action will afford him (even if, when considered from the point of view of the big picture, the action is detrimental to his happiness). Punishment is a matter of restoring the natural connection between pain and acting contrary to nature’s ends—somewhat, you might say, as the gardener or horticulturalist who treats a disease of the roots or leaves is restoring a tree to its natural state. (Pages 38-39)

At the risk of wearing my reader out, here is the text of F&B’s argument for the premise that the severity of the punishment should be proportional to the badness of the crime:

The principle of proportionality is essentially just an extension of the idea that there is—in the long run and when things are functioning properly—a natural correlation between goodness and pleasure, on the one hand, and evil and pain on the other.  The natural correlation is, specifically, between degrees of goodness and pleasure, on the one hand, and degrees of evil and pain on the other. Hence the natural order of things is—again, in the long run and when things are functioning properly—for greater goodness to be associated with greater pleasure and less goodness with less pleasure, and for greater evil to be associated with greater pain and less evil with less pain….

This natural correlation, made intelligible by the Aristotelian-Thomistic essentialism and immanent teleology, is for the natural law theorist the deep metaphysical reality that we grasp in an intuitive way when we judge that someone has received or failed to receive his “just deserts”. We cannot help but regard it as fitting when things go well for good people and badly for bad people, and as unfair when the reverse occurs.  For the traditional natural law theorist, this is not the mere expression of some noncognitive affective state but rather the inchoate apprehension of the objective order of things—of the fact that, given our nature, our good acts inherently “point to” or are “directed toward” happiness and our bad acts inherently “point to” or are “directed to” unhappiness.  When things do not work this way, we rightly perceive this as a kind of disorder, just as we rightly perceive bodily or psychological abnormalities as instances of disorder. Rewards and punishments are, like medical and psychological treatment, essentially attempts to restore the proper order of things. (44-45).

Perhaps the most fundamental critique of this argument is simply: nobody thinks this way.  No one wants a hero to be rewarded because of an observed pattern in life whereby heroic deeds lead to happiness and pleasure.  That just isn’t going through our heads.

In fact, some people are like Ecclesiastes, who did not observe a pattern in life whereby the good end up with pleasure and the evil with pain.  And yet these same people, who do not see such a tendency in life, see the lack of that tendency as a big problem.  They think that the just really should be rewarded and the evil punished, even without having observed the pattern F&B claim, because they see the goodness as rewardable and evil as punishable in themselves.

What’s more, we sometimes think that people who did evil deserve punishment even when their evil actions lead to misery. When we hear that the courts are going to punish someone, we don’t ask ourselves, “But wait?  Was his life already miserable?  Because, if so, then there is no need to bring things back into line with the natural teleology of things.”

But let me see if I can tease out the problem from within F&B’s own case.  Take a look back at the four steps of their argument.  In step 4, we see that the natural teleology of things has been violated, and that is what motivates us to action.  But we already saw the natural teleology of things violated back in step 1, where we saw someone act badly, i.e., against the natural teleology built into nature.  If a violation of natural teleology were enough to prompt us to action then we would have acted back at step 1; but if we were not prompted to act by the violation of natural teleology in step 1, then we won’t be prompted to act by the violation of natural teleology in step 4.  Either the argument stops with step 1, in which case it isn’t an argument, or it fizzles out at step 4 and reaches no conclusion.

What would it mean to act right away at step 1?  Well, if we saw a man steal and immediately wanted to restore the natural order built into property ownership, we would make him give the stuff back and more besides to replace the trouble he gave the rightful owner in the meantime.  And we might tack on something further to make sure he wasn’t motivated to do it again.  In other words, we would punish him.  If we saw a man murder—well, in this case we couldn’t just make him give the life back.  So we would find some other way of making him “give back”—and again, this would look like what we mean by “punishing” him.  Whatever is the reason why we would act to set things right, it isn’t the 4-step argument F&B put forward.

So why do F&B spell out four steps when their own logic seems to indicate that we need not even finish step 1?  I think it is bound up with their general philosophical approach to moral questions:  they want to find a third-person, external account for why we are prompted to action when we see a violation of natural teleology.  They believe that we do not see moral truths immediately, but as conclusions drawn from an outsider’s-view study of the natures of things.

In other words, we can see a bad action, a violation of natural teleology from the outsider’s perspective, but from that perspective we can’t see why we should do anything about it.  So they need to extend their case with more outsider’s-view steps connecting the bad action to some kind of outcome.  And yet the extra steps in fact do not explain why we are moved to action by seeing a violation of natural teleology.

The problem is not in the steps, or in the number of steps.  The problem is in the general philosophical approach:  one cannot stay in the third-person point of view all the time and get to rational moral conclusions.  To quote Pope St. John Paul II once more (Veritatis Splendor 78): “In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is … necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person.

Let me emphasize again that I agree with F&B’s conclusion here, namely that punishment is a good thing.  Today’s culture has demonized all punishment, banishing it from the family, from the state, from the Church, and even from God, and the results have been terrible for theology.  No one can give a coherent account of Purgatory anymore, or of the sacrament of reconciliation, or of the eternity of hell, or even of Christ’s redemptive death, because punishment has been re-conceived as an evil.  The truth of the F&B’s conclusion is why I am bothering to critique their argument.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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