Friday, October 07, 2005

The Ethic of Life

I'm beginning to think that Mike Liccione is a genius. After all, he often says out loud what I have secretly thought for years. In a post yesterday I mentioned briefly and in passing that I, personally, think that opposition to abortion and to capital punishment go hand-in-hand, and Mike makes an eloquent and more detailed statement to that effect today.

I did not always agree, however. Like many conservatives, I was willing to draw a distinction between those persons who are innocent of any wrongdoing and those who have committed capital crimes. Since the Church has explicitly argued that capital punishment is not per se wrong, one must look somewhere for a justification for its application, given that the Church has also explicitly argued that every human person has equal dignity and worth. The only such judgment that I could find, when I was a supporter of capital punishment, was the argument from justice: if a capital criminal is to be executed, it can only be because it is what is due him as a matter of justice. There are actually two principles at work here. The first is the assumption that the physical death of a human being is not the same thing as the spiritual death of a human being--an argument that is not all that bad even if it is stolen from that old pagan Plato. The other is the equally Greek notion that it is wrong not to give someone something that he needs and/or deserves. If you come upon a man suffering from a head wound and needing a transfusion of blood, it would be cruelly wrong not to give him a transfusion if you can do so with no threat to yourself (say, from a blood bank when one is available). So too, if you come upon a person needing an administration of justice, it is in fact wrong to deprive him of that, if it is something that is rightfully his. I call this a "Greek" notion because (guess who?) Plato argued that all true justice is rehabillatory, never punitive or retributive. In fact he argued that justice is the spiritual analogue of medicine: as medicine cures a sick body, the administration of justice cures a sick soul.

But we are not ancient Greeks. Should we adopt, without critical examination, their attitude towards justice? Mike offers an interesting peroration to his post:
What this whole debate shows me is that many Catholics don't adopt Catholicism as their primary template of thought. Especially on matters of political significance, their thinking is formed elsewhere and brought to their Catholicism. That shows they aren't Catholic enough. Of course few of us are; if we were, we'd all be saints, and I'm certainly no saint. But granted I find it harder to behave than to believe, I can and do expect consistency of belief and strive constantly to attain it. I don't understand why more Catholics don't do the same.
I would say that he is just about right, but I would perhaps make one emendation. Perhaps it is not because some folks are not "Catholic enough", but because some folks are Catholic in an outmoded way. They are still reading matters of justice through a lens that was inherited by the Schoolmen from the Greeks.

In my view, there is nothing wrong, and plenty good, about Scholasticism and Greek philosophy. But we are not bound to accept all of it de fide. I particularly like Mike's bit about adopting "Catholicism as [one's] primary template of thought." Doing that, I imagine, means transforming one's life in such a way that petty political attitudes must be abandoned in favor of more transcendental attitudes about the dignity and worth of other human persons and a foreswearing of violence and destruction as a method of dealing with human persons whom we dislike. Plato, bless his heart, may have had the right idea in principle, but much real life justice just is about retribution, whether we like to admit it or not. To avoid the danger of misusing the precious gift of just judgment in that way, why not use it more, well, judiciously?


Mike L said...

Your first sentence has the merit of sparing me the need, today at least, for shameless self-promotion. But I've never thought of myself as a genius. If I were, I wouldn't have to work a very ordinary job while I work to return to my old profession. I got into that situation through my own stupidity.

I agree with your "emendation," which is a due refinement of my own point. And your larger point applies equally to the Left and the Right in the Church. Perhaps we could say more about that, especially regarding the once-fashionable "seamless garment."


Tom said...

I call this a "Greek" notion because (guess who?) Plato argued that all true justice is rehabillatory, never punitive or retributive.

Today's reading for Morning Prayer is Judith 8:25-27, which includes this: "Not for vengeance did the Lord put them [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has he done so with us. It is by way of admonition that he chastises those who are close to him."

So maybe the idea that all true justice is rehabillatory isn't only a Greek notion. (Admittedly, it's not a notion writ too large in the Old Testament.)

Though we distinguish between justice in this life and the final judgment, which is retributive, in the old or etymological sense of giving what someone has coming, wanted or not.

Scott Carson said...


Just a quick comment. The date of composition for Judith is extremely late as Scriptures go...possibly as late as 168 B.C. So Plato, writing nearly two hundred years earlier and borrowing from a (Greek) tradition that goes back even farther, is probably a better representative of the tradition, especially that aspect of the tradition that I have in mind, the purely rehabilitative.

That's not to say that the Greek tradition is wholly original, though. Of course it's quite possible that the old Hebrew tradition and the Greek tradition have some common ancestor that informs both in matters of justice. But the Old Testament in particular, whatever it has to say about rehabilitation, clearly also endorses a justice of retribution, where Plato's view of justice was explicitly excluding that sort of view.

The New Testament view of justice strikes me as altogether different.

Your comment about the final judgment as retributive raises an interesting point. It seems to me to reduce justice to a utilitarian calculus: you go to heaven as a reward for living justly; you go to hell as a punishment for living unjustly. I don't think that is really the right model. One goes to heaven only when one has managed to conform one's will to God's, but not as some sort of reward for having done so but rather because that is the natural entailment, given God's known purposes and characteristics, of living a life in conformity with God's will. Perhaps there is not a huge difference there, but it does strike me as different.

Tom said...


Would you at least agree that the Final Judgment as retributive is a model with plenty of support in Scripture and Tradition, even if -- "It's only a model" -- it doesn't say everything there is to say about the Four Last Things?

Scott Carson said...


I'm not altogether sure what you mean by "plenty of support", but I suppose I would have to agree that there are instances, both in Scripture and in Tradition, where the justice that gets applied appears to be retributive rather than rehabilitative.

One must balance this fact, though, with what Our Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth', but I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

This, I take it, is a call to understand justice in a way that is not intuitively obvious: by "turning the other cheek" we lay aside certain kinds of claims that we could make against those who have harmed us. It is, in my opinion, yet a further example of the sort of abandonment of self that Christian discipleship requires. It is very much orthogonal to the idea of justice as retributive.

This is not to say that all justice must be non-retributive in order to be consistently Christian in form, only to say that this is the sort of justice that we are called to.

Mike L said...

I agree that Jesus uses language suggesting that the Final Judgment as retributive. That, after all, is very Old Testament. But I also believe that justice and mercy coincide in the Eschaton. The love of God will be as fully offered and manifest to the wicked as to the saved. The difference is that the wicked will hate it for all eternity. And they will have done it to themselves.