Forgiveness and Retribution

In an infamous passage, Thomas Aquinas wondered whether the virtuous in heaven would rejoice at the sight of the suffering of the vicious in hell. Relying on an implausibly crisp distinction between the pleasure caused by the contemplation of suffering as such and the pleasure caused by the contemplation of justice being realized, Aquinas concluded that the virtuous in heaven would indeed rejoice. Notwithstanding Aquinas’s views on the matter, I am willing to stipulate that the contemplation of any infliction of punishment, even if we assume it to be inflicted justly, is a disgusting spectacle. After all, part of what punishment seeks to do is to make wrongdoers suffer—and the contemplation of suffering is, in and of itself, problematic. Witnessing suffering—even deserved suffering—is, to say the absolute least, not a nice experience. 

Less abstractly, however, the contemplation of the functioning of the very imperfect human criminal justice systems around the planet gives rise to much more than mere disgust or unease: it gives rise both to moral indignation and to emphatic terror. One usual culprit – if not the standard culprit – for the ghastly state of contemporary criminal justice systems is retributivism. In a way, this is understandable. First, because politicians tend to hijack retributivist themes and terms, yanking them out of their proper contexts, in order to mobilize them in the advancement of this or that “tough on crime” agenda. These agendas are often overly simplistic and callous – that is, when they are not blatantly oppressive or racist.  Second, because even within academia, retributivism tends to be confused with other views that are much more problematic, such as lex talionis, or a championing of the proliferation of “strict liability” offenses, or other notoriously harsh and unnuanced positions.

About the Law, Philosophy, and Social Theory Colloquium

The Law, Philosophy, and Social Theory Colloquium is jointly presented by the University of Michigan Philosophy Department and the School of Law. The public sessions feature presentations by leading or emerging voices in the fields of legal theory, moral or political philosophy to faculty members from the philosophy department, the law school, the history department, the Ross School of Business and the African-American Studies department, among others. The Colloquium is open to the academic community.

Professors Ekow Yankah (ekow@umich.edu) and Sarah Moss (ssmoss@umich.edu) organize the Colloquium. If you would like to receive Colloquium announcements, please contact Alex Wroble (arwroble@umich.edu) and ask to have your name added to the workshop’s email list.