Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Retributivist Theory of Condemnation

I am looking at theories of condemnation to measure how they compare to the role that condemnation plays in desirism.

I am using the following text:

Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

So far, I have looked at:

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation: the theory that people condemn others because they seek some personal gain - compensation, cooperation in the production of a public good, satisfaction.

The Deterrence Theory of Condemnation that explains condemnation as a threat that will give people a reason not to perform those actions that will result in condemnation.

This time I wish to look at the Retributivist Theory of Condemnation.

The authors describe the retributivist theory as follows:

This theory claims that condemnatory behavior is motivated by the goal to cause harm to the perpetrator in proportion with the blameworthiness of the perpetrator’s wrongdoing (p. 48).

Research on condemnation show that "subjects’ punishment judgments are sensitive to the perceived blameworthiness of the perpetrator" according to the authors. However, this leads to a question. How do we measure the blameworthiness of the perpetrator? If blameworthiness is measured in terms of the amount of punishment that the person is thought to deserve, and punishment is proportional to blameworthiness, then we have a vicious little circle linking blameworthy attitudes and punishment attitudes. Of course, in this case, punishment is going to be proportional to blameworthiness, because blameworthiness is determined by the amount of punishment one judges the agent to be due.

Retributivist theory is going to suffer from the fame fault identified earlier for both egoistic and deterrence theories. It fails to account for our condemnation of those who have died, fictional characters, or hypothetical characters. Historic and fictitious characters cannot be made to pay compensation, nor can they be coerced or shamed into participating in projects that benefit the community (egoistic theory), nor can our condemnation deter them from performing similar crimes in the future (deterrence theory). Similarly, we cannot harm them. If the motive of condemnation is to obtain retribution in proportion to the wrong, and we cannot harm them, then the motive for condemning them cannot be coming from that source.

A moral education theory of condemnation can handle these types of cases. This theory states that the motive behind condemnation is to alter people's character - to create and promote useful desires to perform or aversions to performing certain types of actions, not only in the person condemned, but in others as well. We condemn historical figures to tell people, "Don't be like them." This is the same reason we create and condemn story-book and movie villains. The purpose is not to bring about any change on the part of those who are condemned, but to bring about a charge in the population as a whole based on that condemnation.

I should add - these are not entirely either-or choices. Obviously, deterrence and incentive are reasons behind reward and punishment. And we do sometimes threaten punishment to coerce people into contributing to a public good. So, there is some truth behind the egoistic and deterrence theories. The retributivist theory has an additional problem that these other theories do not have. Retributivist theory seems to hold that harming certain people is good for its own sake - that it is to be pursued as an end independent of any benefit that may come from it. If intrinsic value does not exist, then punishing people in order to bring about or realize a state of intrinsic value that does not exist can never justify punishment.

Desirism does have a way to handle that objection. Recall that desirism concerns the benefits of manufacturing certain desires - and that means manufacturing certain ends. A person with a desire to keep his promises views keeping a promise as an end in itself - something to do for its own sake independent of the benefits it creates. It does not look to the benefit of keeping promises, but to the benefits of promoting a universal desire to keep promises. One can make the argument that there are benefits to promoting, universally, a desire to see the guilty punished. A person with this desire will seek to punish the innocent even in cases where punishing the innocent produces no additional benefits in the same way that a person with a desire to keep promises will keep a promise even when it produces no other benefit. It is useful to universalize such a desire or aversion even if they lead to these rare cases in which no good comes of it - good still comes from universalizing the relevant desire or aversion.

Desirism, then, provides us with a way of understanding retributivist condemnation without the metaphysical magic of intrinsically prescriptive properties.

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