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Sending Michael Vick to hell

David Schraub has a theory about the widespread consternation over Michael Vick's successful return to football after serving his sentence for dogfighting. Even those people who don't go so far as to call for his execution seem to think there's something wrong with Vick's ability to move on with his life. Schraub says:

[T]he state-inflicted violence that is the penal system ... needs justification, and so, in order to rationalize punishment, we have to tell ourselves that the person is a bad person. Which of course, in a way, he is -- people who drown dogs or beat women or rob banks are bad people. But only so much so. The problem is that whereas criminal penalties are generally temporally limited (e.g., a jail sentence of two years), moral judgments have no such borders. Having concluded that someone is a bad person is the warrant that justifies the incarceration, but it does not fade away upon their release. We find, post-release, that our thirst for retribution hasn't been quenched. After all, there is a bad guy out there, living his life freely, successful, even happy. There is a disjuncture between the formalized, limited, moral judgment of incarceration, and the broader narrative of wrongfulness that sustains our ability to render that judgment under law -- a narrative that enjoys no such bounds or constraints, a narrative that, may, fundamentally, be incompatible with any sentence for felons other than life without parole.

I think this captures something important about the way modern US culture conceptualizes wrongdoing. Our focus is not on wrongful acts as events that ought to be eliminated. Instead, our interest is in diagnosing whether individuals are bad people or good people. Wrongful acts are merely diagnostic of bad-person-ness. On the other hand, a firm belief in someone's good-person-ness can be used to excuse or deny someone's wrongful acts. And we are quite willing to create situations in which wrongful acts are more likely in the hopes that this will let bad people reveal themselves as such. Ours is a society built in some respects on the fundamental attribution error.

But this way of thinking goes beyond criminal justice into theology, and I think it helps to explain some otherwise puzzling features of conventional Christianity. I've often heard atheists suggest that Christianity does not make sense (or at least that the Christian god is not as good as advertised) because the doctrine of hell proposes infinite punishment for finite sins. That is, any sin a human can commit is limited in its bad effects. Yet according to conventional Christianity, even the tiniest sin would -- in the absence of Jesus' forgiveness -- condemn us to an eternity of punishment in hell. This is a powerful argument if we conceive of wrongful acts (sins) as bad events that should either be deterred or met with proportionate retribution. But what if instead we look at sins as diagnostic of the badness of the sinner as a person? Stealing $20 may not deserve an eternity of punishment, but being a bad person -- the kind of person who would steal $20 -- is an unchangeable quality which you will still have at the end of any finite term of punishment. (The intensity of punishment may be able to vary with the nature of your badness -- see Dante's progressively worse circles of hell -- but eternal badness still requires eternal punishment.)

If hell's eternity is premised upon the badness of the damned person's character rather than the scope of their sins' effects, this tells us something about the nature of Jesus' forgiveness. There is much emphasis in conventional Christianity on the idea that being "saved" is a soul-changing experience. This is not forgiveness in the mundane sense in which an individual wrongful act is dismissed. Rather, it is a wiping clean of the person's basic character. You are made no longer a bad person, and thus not deserving of an eternity in hell. Indeed, as a good person you now deserve an eternity in heaven. This helps to make sense of another common atheist complaint. According to conventional Christianity, if on his deathbed Hitler had sincerely repented and accepted Jesus into his heart, he would have gone straight to heaven. This seems illogical from a perspective that focuses on wrongful acts, since from that perspective Hitler still had at least 11 million seriously wrongful acts to account for. How can repentance just wipe that all away? But on the bad person model, Hitler wasn't headed to hell for killing 11 million people, he was headed to hell for being the kind of person who would kill 11 million people. Post-repentance, he would no longer be that kind of person, and this he no longer deserves hell.

I still think the "infinite punishment for finite sins" and "deathbed repentance" arguments raise important problems with conventional Christian theology. But that's because I don't subscribe to the "bad person" model of sin.


Blogger Charlie Talbert said...

Identifying people as either good or bad, period, is the faulty thinking that’s behind the occasional criticism one hears of the Unitarian Universalist first principle, as in, “How could Hitler have had inherent worth and dignity? “

A purpose of the UU principles is, in my opinion, to articulate and emphasize values that are especially important to us. I once showed the seven principles to a Muslim invited, with his daughter, to one of our congregation’s world religions RE classes. He said there was nothing in them he disagreed with. I think that would be a common perception, regardless of one’s religion. But it’s not just that Unitarian Universalists agree with these principles: We want to hold them up as ideals to integrate into our everyday lives and the world around us.

So yes, Hitler had inherent worth and dignity, and he had inherent selfish and evil impulses – just like everybody else. Maybe if he’d been reminded of his worth and dignity more often, though, his dark side would not have dominated so catastrophically.

Getting back to your point about Michael Vick, probably more people would be less inclined to permanently judge him a “bad person” if they realized their own direct complicity in suffering that goes well beyond what Vick perpetrated with his dog fighting enterprise. (See “We Are All Michael Vick” by Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers, Gary Francione )

5:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

We expect punishment to generate contrition. When it fails to do so, we call for more punishment. A sort of moral conditioning by extreme methods, as if criminals were misbehaving children to be reproved.

10:11 PM  

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