As Feser and Bessete wind up their argument about punishment as such, they note that punishment has traditionally been considered to have several purposes: in addition to retribution, it can also serve to deter future crime or rehabilitate the criminal. “But,” they go on, “as our discussion indicates, for the natural law theorist, retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment: it is the fundamental end” (page 40). Further down they make explicit what they mean: “For, all things being equal, we may punish even if we will thereby achieve no end other than retribution; but we may not punish if retribution is not at least one of the ends aimed at.”
However, still further in, F&B allow that “some traditional natural law theorists think” that we can’t “inflict a punishment merely to secure retributive justice,” and they go on to offer some citations from Aquinas (57). It was only on my second read that I realized F&B are saying that Aquinas disagrees with them about punishment. Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point: “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2). Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas”
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:
- 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.
- We reason that what happens for the most part and when things are working well reflects the natural teleology built into the world.
- 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.
- 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: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Case for Punishment”
In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning. They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.
The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind. Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach”
No matter what criticism one brings against their book or its argument, one must admit that Feser and Bessette make their argument clear. On page 52, they offer an overview of their philosophical argument for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. Notice that steps 4, 5, and 6 form a syllogism:
- Wrongdoers deserve punishment.
- The graver the wrongdoing, the severer is the punishment deserved.
- Some crimes are so grave that no punishment less than death would be proportionate in its severity.
- Therefore, wrongdoers guilty of such crimes deserve death.
- Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
- Therefore, public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict the death penalty on those guilty of the gravest offenses.
Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview”