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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Another Failed Attempt to Justify the Punishment of an Innocent

A certain blogger, in an attempt to defend the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement, has sought to justify God's punishment of the innocent with the following two arguments:

1. Punishing an innocent is the same as making an innocent suffer and since innocent people often suffer in accordance with God's will and justice, then on the same principle it is just for God to punish the innocent. In both cases the victim is receiving treatment that he or she does not deserve.

What is wrong with this argument? There is a logical distinction between suffering as a consequence (or "collateral damage") and being singled out specifically for "punishment." The reason for the distinction is that "punishment" is a legal term. It is used in regard to the execution of justice. According to Merriam-Webster, it signifies "suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution." Punishment is the application of retributive justice. According to one source, retribution "is a theory of justice that considers that punishment, if proportionate, is a morally acceptable response to crime, with an eye to the satisfaction and psychological benefits it can bestow to the aggrieved party, its intimates and society." There are two necessary requirements for just punishment according to retributive justice: 1) the person be guilty of the crime; 2) the punishment be proportionate to the crime committed. Without these two components, there is no retributive justice. Obviously the most important element is the establishment of guilt and that is why we have judges and courtrooms.

As moral philosopher Kurt Baier writes:
For 'punishment' is the name of a method, or system, of inflicting hardship, the aim of which is to hurt all and only those who are guilty of an offence. For this reason, a system of punishment requires a more or less elaborate apparatus for detecting those who are guilty and for allotting to them the hardship prescribed by the system.

... If, after the jury has found the accused 'not guilty', the judge says 'I sentence you to three years' hard labour', this is not just an unusual case of punishing the man who is innocent, but not a case of punishment at all. And here it would not only not be pedantic, let alone wrong, but perfectly right to say that this case was not a case of punishment
("Is Punishment Retributive?", reprinted in in Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment, ed. Gertrude Ezorsky, pp. 18, 20).

Punishment, therefore, as a judicial sentence, is only justified by guilt. If the person is not guilty of the crime but is punished anyway for it, the act of punishment is itself an unjust act. The Romans phrased it this way nulla poena sine crimen ("no punishments except for a crime").

2. Punishment of innocents is forbidden in "the human administration of justice" but not in "the divine administration of justice."

This argument fails to understand the relation of "justice" to the holiness of God. Christians believe that God is perfectly holy. Thus, he cannot do anything that it is unrighteous or unjust. Deuteronomy 32:4 states concerning God that "his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he"(NIV).

God's justice, according to Christian theologians, flows from his holiness and perfection. His ways have to be in accordance with what is right and just in order for him to continue to be holy. John Owen, the 17th century Puritan and defender par excellence of the PST, argued that God must punish sin because of his holy nature. He would violate his justice (and thus his holiness) if he did not (see A Dissertation on Divine Justice). Just as it would violate God's holiness not to punish sin, it would also violate his holiness to punish sin where it does not exist. In other words, to punish an innocent is a form of lying because it is saying the person is guilty when he is not. Just as "God cannot lie" (Titus 1:2) because it would violate his holy and perfect nature, neither can he do that which is unjust without violating his holy and perfect nature.

Furthermore, man's moral code, according to Christians, is based on the absolute of God's nature (thus morality according to them is absolute). Laws that reflect the moral nature of God are just laws and those that do not are unjust. God's nature is the standard by which man is supposed to measure his conduct. Thus, if it is wrong for man to punish an innocent, then it must be because somehow the punishment of an innocent contradicts or violates the perfectly just nature of God.

So, for these and other reasons, I maintain that the PST of the atonement is internally inconsistent with historic Christian theology.


  1. The blogger responded:
    He said: Whether you call that treatment “punishment” or “collateral damage” does nothing to differentiate the underlying principle, for in both cases, the party is not receiving his just deserts. Unmerited suffering raises the same moral or theodicean issue as unmerited punishment.
    So the blogger admits that in both cases "the party is not receiving his just deserts." If someone does not receive their just deserts, that means they are receiving unjust treatment. So he admits my point. There is still a difference between an innocent party suffering as a consequence of actions that were not designed specifically to punis him and an innocent party suffering treatment that was specifically designed to punish him. In the former case, it is an unfortunate consequence not an intended consequence. For example, if the US decides to bomb a building that is housing Al-Qaeda terrorists, and innocent civilians that live nearby are killed, the treatment of the terrorists and the treatment of the civilians is distinguished by the intent of the one causing the suffering. Now in human cases this is understandable because we humans are not omniscient and omnipotent. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we cannot design the punishment in such a way that eliminates the possibility of innocents dying. But there is an obvious moral difference between killing innocents as collateral damage and targeting innocents to kill as terrorists often do.
    He continues: Moreover, it’s artificial to distinguish between “punishment” and “consequences,” for a punishment is simply a special type of consequence.
    It is correct that punishment is a special type of consequence. It is special in the sense that it designed to recompense the wrong-doer for his wrong act. To attempt to recompense an innocent for a wrong-act is non-sensical because the innocent by definition has not committed the wrong act. So to follow through with "punishment" of an innocent is to commit an unjust and immoral act.
    He continues:
    Of course, if punishment is merely a legal term, then guilt can be assigned by law. By definition, a party is guilty if the law assigns guilt in that situation. By definition, the punishment is legally just.
    This assumes that all laws and all application of laws reflects justice. In Muslim countries, for example, there are many laws that are patently unjust. Are they legal? Yes. Are they morally just? No.
    He continues: You can have utilitarian (e.g. deterrence, remediation) as well as retributive theories of punishment.
    True but the Bible clearly teaches retributive justice. So when the God of the Bible executes punishment, he is executing it according to retributive justice.

  2. He continues: Clearly the Bible itself doesn’t regard penal substitution as incompatible with Biblical canons of justice.
    I agree and this is one of its many contradictions. The fact is the Bible was written (and edited) by many different authors and there are actually competing or contradictory views presented on this topic as well as many others.
    He asks: Is he simply treating the definition of retributive justice as a social convention or analytical truth, like “bachelors are unmarried men?” But that wouldn’t begin to show that penal substitution is objectively wrong. It is as incoherent to talk about punishing an innocent as it is to say that bachelors are married. It is non-sensical. So what one calls "punishment" when inflicted on an innocent is not really "punishment" but the infliction of unjust hard treatment upon one who does not deserve it.
    He asks: Or is he grounding retributive justice in objective moral norms? Yet Pulliam appeals to evolutionary psychology to explain our moral sensibilities regarding retributive justice. But even if we went along with that etiology, this would only account for the origin our moral beliefs. It wouldn’t begin to demonstrate that our moral sensibilities map onto objective moral facts. Indeed, if our moral sensibilities are the byproduct of an amoral process like naturalistic evolution, then that would undercut their normative force.
    I don't agree. Evolution has provided us with instincts that are necessary to our survival as a species. Are these instincts true? Yes, I would say so. There are a few moral instincts that we also possess. Precisely how we came to have them, I am not certain but the fact that they are universally or nearly universally agreed upon tells me that they are true. Some define objective as something that is true whether anyone believes it or not but I would prefer to define it as something that is true because everyone believes it. That does not mean that everything that man has universally believed in history has proven to be correct but when one comes to moral instincts there has been a universal agreement among men that certain things are wrong, for example, rape, killing an innocent, and so on. Someone might argue that some societies have condoned these practices but I would disagree. Sometimes societies have enforced different standards for the treatment of those within their group versus the treatment of those apart from their group. For example, cannibalistic societies would prohibit eating people of their own tribe but people of other tribes could be eaten. Or one might say that millions of Christians have seen no problem with Jesus dying as the penal substitute for man's sin even though he was innocent. However, the fact is that Christian theologians who believe in the PST have attempted ways to justify the punishment of an innocent in the case of Jesus. They have taken a number of different approaches but if it was not commonly believed that it is wrong to punish an innocent, then why would they attempt to rationalized and justify it in the case of Jesus?
    He continues: I didn’t say anything about “man’s moral code.” Rather, I distinguished between the divine “administration” of justice and the human “administration” of justice. But according to the Christian the administration of human justice if it is to be truly just should be a reflection of God's nature which is the perfect standard (according to them) of justice.

  3. Blogger is right to note that there is a distinction between origin and justification, but misses the mark in arguing that "product of amoral processes" implies "amoral."

    I don't have a lot of trouble here because I am a value non-realist, but one can still be a value-realist and maintain that the source of our ethical feelings is naturalistic.

    But that said, I have to disagree with your defense: "Some define objective as something that is true whether anyone believes it or not but I would prefer to define it as something that is true because everyone believes it. That does not mean that everything that man has universally believed in history has proven to be correct but when one comes to moral instincts there has been a universal agreement among men that certain things are wrong, for example, rape, killing an innocent, and so on."

    As a counterexample, I note the existence of psychopaths and more strongly the nonexistence of a universal taboo. But ignoring these two items, I still do not think that consensus can ever be a decisive criterion of justified knowledge. It also fails to provide certain things, such as correctness/incorrectness in moral argument. So, if I were to say "Ken, I don't feel that punting babies off of cliffs is wrong," does this mean that you can not say whether or not punting babies off of cliffs is wrong? Or does it only have to be near-universal consent?

    A better rebuttal for the moral realist is to argue that events have ethical properties. Our moral sense has evolved and the perceptions it gives us might not always be reliable (hence why we can disagree or be misguided), but one can demonstrate the rightness/wrongness of an action through some methodology, e.g. utilitarianism. So you could say that we have an evolved moral sense that has given us the capacity to recognize right and wrong in our environment. This would not require that evolution be a morally aware entity to produce a moral sense for the same reason that evolution need not be a seeing entity in order to produce an eye and visual cortex.

  4. More pithily, the watchmaker is both blind and indifferent.

  5. Zach,

    Thanks for your comments and insights.