Friday, September 23, 2011

Just Feelings

Will Wilkinson makes a fine case against the death penalty.
Now, I don't know how to convince you that even especially heinous murderers don't deserve to suffer the same fate they meted out. I suppose I would start by distinguishing justice from vengeance. I would observe that there is no pervasive ethereal moral substance that must be kept in some sort of cosmic balance lest society devolve into chaos. We may feel deeply, in our marrow, in our prickling indignant skin, that the yin of crime calls out for the yang of punishment. But I would warn against putting much trust our retributive instincts. I would suggest that civilization demands setting these feelings aside, that it requires that we ask ourselves in a cool hour the point of criminal justice.
I'm still convinced that justice is still largely about what people feel, not what they think. It isn't necessarily an illegitimate stance, but certainly cause for concern. That is, if you can't make a rational argument for something, without merely resorting to "how it feels", then you're in dangerous territory.

I've highlighted in bold what I think is a crucial point.  Revenge is a very common argument for punishment from the general public. Yet eye-for-eye style justice is absurd, leading to all sorts of logical barbarism, much of which those same people would likely find distasteful (until they got used to it, no doubt! Fox would make a killing on P.P.V.).

So this sort of justice-by-feeling seems rather squishy, even when we are merely talking about that nebulous concept of social retribution. In other words, what determines what wrong has been done to society, if our "feelings" are so unreliable?

I'm still unclear as to what service it provides us that utilitarianism does not. Certainly a citizen 1000 years ago would experience feelings of unwhetted blood-lust, were a convicted murderer not to be executed in public, after humiliation and torture. Yet we require modern man to bite his lip and be satisfied with less. Is the modern man worse off, not having had his dark taste? Maybe in order to truly fulfill what is rightfully ours, by this supposedly sacred instinct, we should indeed give the thirsty public what it wants.