Monday, July 16, 2012

Types of Excuses: Deserved Punishment

This post will discuss the last of six types of excuse - the excuse of deserved punishment.

In general, I like desirism precisely because it accounts for so much of our moral life. Other theories have focused on rationalizing our distinct moral prejudices. Many have not even asked the question, "How do you account for the four categories of culpability?" or "Why are praise and condemnation central to our moral experience?" or "What is an excuse?" 

Desirism holds that desires are the primary object of moral evaluation and that condemnation and punishment are used for molding malleable desires - promoting desires (and aversions) people have reason to promote. An excuse is a claim that argues, "Though it may look like it at first glance, this is not a case where it makes sense for people generally to use this tool of condemnation and punishment against me."

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to all forms of violence. However, this is not practical. Morality itself uses punishment as a way of molding desires - not only for those punished but those who become aware of the punishment. Punishment (as opposed to simple violence) carries an intrinsic message of condemnation. If a person is convicted of a crime, punishment is not a purely mechanical application of violence against that person. It is a declaration that "People like you deserve to be treated this way. You - and those like you - are contemptible."

This means that people can excuse acts of harsh treatment - acts that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn - by saying, "He deserved it."

Another phrase commonly used when appealing to the "deserved punishment" excuse is, "I am going to teach him a lesson." Note here that desirism can explain the idea that this type of behavior actually is an example of "teaching a moral lesson." This is not just a figure of speech. It is an accurate description of what condemnation and just punishment are for - teaching moral lessons (molding malleable desires).

Violence is also often needed as a form of defense against villains. Complete pacifism turns a community into a feeding ground for villains. At the same time, self defense is also only legitimate against those who act wrongly. Defending oneself against properly authorized legal authorities is not an excusable behavior.

This is also a much abused excuse. A person lies to the insurance company and justifies it in his own mind as a justified act of punishment against a greedy corporation. A rapist or a man who beats his wife and children will tell them (and himself) that they deserve to be punishment. The Jews deserved the Holocaust for being a part of an economic conspiracy to enslave the German people, and the Bible reports how the dark-skinned descendants of Ham deserve to be enslaved as divine punishment for Ham's actions.

A valid excuse claim requires that the behavior in question be of a type that people in general actually do have real reasons to condemn and punishment. These claims are justified in terms of people generally having many and strong reasons to mold malleable desires along certain lines. However, this includes the many and strong reasons they have for condemning unjustified (unjust) punishments.

The massive abuses that we see argue for tempering and constraining  these acts of violence. People generally have many and strong reasons to insist on a presumption of innocence, on the evidence being heard by an impartial jury, and of the violence being proportional to the wrong - all of these worked out in terms of the reasons that people generally have to use these tools to teach these lessons. People who do not work within these limits cannot justify their use of the excuse of deserved punishment.


Mike said...

Interesting take on life. Maybe learning to do away with desire is a possible alternative.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You woukd die.

Desires are theonly reasons for action that exist. No desires imply no reasons to act - not even to eat.