It is a triumph of Dante’s art that we remember the nine circles of hell without really puzzling over their essential irrelevance to their inhabitants. After all, if the inhabitants of the first circle are really being punished eternally, from their point of view, it matters not if they are in the second or the ninth circle. Instinctively we suppose that the nine circles must be distinguished by greater or lesser pain, but this isn’t true. Francesca and Paolo, in the second circle, suffer an equal quantity of pain as does Judas in the ninth circle: it is not the quantitative order of pain, but another order – that of the quality of the sins – that organizes the circles.
This is a reflection of a dilemma at the heart of retributive justice. The scale of retaliation is very easily overwhelmed by the human capacity to commit evil. I can be killed for killing one person; but I can’t then be revived and killed all over again for killing a second person. The extra corpse is secretly buried beneath all of justice’s physical and metaphysical structures.
One of the motives for moral absolutism is to find some way to mark out and retaliate against grades of fault. On the one hand, we would like to say that if a man kills, or puts in motion processes that kill, 40 million people, that such a person is more evil than a person who kills one person. On the other hand, justice has no way of expressing this – there is, so to speak, a market meltdown in retaliation. Dante had to accept this logic as well – once you have decreed eternal pain for Francesca and Paolo, you can vary the pain that separates them from a usurer or traitor, but the quantity of the punishment will be the same.
The moral absolutist complains any moral perspective but one that grounds good and evil in an absolute will collapse morality. But, in practical terms, the second corpse does the same thing for the absolutist. If the killing of the first corpse is absolutely bad, the killing of the second corpse, or n-times corpses, can only be as bad. Infinity times itself is infinity. Having axed the money lender, Raskolnikov becomes no better or worse by axing the maid.
Theologically, the dilemma of retaliation has driven the design of numerous afterlife narratives. One solution to the quantitative problem is reincarnation, so that, in a sense, we can revive Raskolnikov to die twice for his victims. In the next life, Raskolnikov might be born a money lender and have to face the axe himself. The problem is, of course, that such retaliation makes us wonder about our “original” murder. Perhaps Raskolnikov is just revenging a deed in the previous life lived by the moneylender. In which case, as an instrument of justice, it is hard to see why he should be retaliated against. One can imagine nemesis as being very clever in fatal symmetries: Raskolnikov can, perhaps, be reborn as the moneylender and the moneylender as practically another Raskolnikov. However, the couple seems unstuck from the absolute moral schema, as they slaughter each other in one life after the other. If we live in the circular world of the eternal return, it would be hard to see, even, what is the after and what is the before life justifying the slaughters.
Another way out of the dilemma of lex talionis is to decree that no killing at all is allowed, ever. No circumstance, here, justifies killing. Historically, the move of absolute pacifism has never caught on. The reason seems to be that unless it catches on universally, the pacifist seems to either be headed towards certain destruction at the hands of the non-pacifist or, what is worse, colluding with the non-pacifist in the destruction of others, insofar as the non-pacifist does not resist the killing. Isn’t it funny that the absolute ethic, extended into practical life, so quickly loses its appeal? And yet, it does have such appeal that many religious leaders have preached just such pacifism. And if the leaders were successful enough to create religions, than the church’s that follow them will inevitably twist the founder’s words and come up with dozens of creative ways to allow killing.
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