[Forward Thinking]: How Should We Punish People for Moral Failures?

In the newest installment of the Forward Thinking series, Libby Anne and Dan Fincke have asked this question:

How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

I think that there is a problem with this question straight off; the very idea that the violation of one’s morals should result in punishment. I take from the prompt that punishment here means more than a simple pointing out, or the having of an argument over a point of ethics; the implication here is that we should have in and of ourselves a special desire to be, as it is said, “moral enforcers,” attempting to keep the people we know and encounter in line. And, frankly, that’s an attitude, even in a hypothetical as it is presented here, that worries me deeply.

What this prompt essentially asks for, in my opinion, is strategies that force people to conform to a normative system of beliefs about conduct, in other words socially acceptable actions. In this case, I believe that norms have to be questioned more thoroughly than perhaps any aspect of society, for, to borrow from Adorno, we know via our own experiences that our society does not really operate under any sort of widely held ethical truths; thanks to the implementation of capitalistic-driven mass media, amongst plenty of other reasons, any sort of social contract that Americans ever ascribed to certainly does not exist anymore. Consumerism and other material concerns have replaced any responsibility wider society might have felt towards their common man. With public ethics no longer having any objective core, we find ourselves in a state of nihilism.

Thanks to this, Adorno claims, claims about morality cannot be objective; only scientific statements, about fundamental empirical facts, can ever be given objective validity. Morality becomes prejudicial, making it impossible to make good decisions between opposing claims of ethical subjectivity. Thus, morality becomes a tool of power, useful only to make its espouser more attractive. And that influence created is backed not by ethical validity, but the material assets of the person backing a moral vision.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches are raised, I’m not claiming that Dan and Libby Anne are capitalist megalomaniacs seeking to bring us all under our rule. What I mean to do by quickly laying out part of Adorno’s moral philosophy to to indicate the danger of thinking, even in the abstract as it is laid out in the prompt, the idea that we can be so set in our morality that we then believe ourselves to have the authority to punish others for violating our own moral code. I cannot ever imagine myself being so certain of rights and wrongs that I would take it upon myself as a duty to discipline another because they did or said something that contradicted my views in some way. It seems like a position borne of ego, and not a terribly moral one in and of itself at that.

So, that’s my answer, and a question to all of you: could you ever be so certain of your morality, so affirmed, so unconcerned at the possible holes in your own reasoning, that you would take it upon yourself to become an ethical constable? I certainly don’t think that I could.

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One thought on “[Forward Thinking]: How Should We Punish People for Moral Failures?

  1. Pingback: Forward Thinking: Whether or How to Punish People

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