Punishment and Suffering

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When debating topics like Atonement and Hell, I've run across the following argument: an essential part of punishment is conscious suffering. That seems...wrong to me. To all of Jeremy's readers out there, I have two questions: 1) is this a common belief? 2) do you agree that punishment requires conscious suffering?

Two things to consider: A) Is it impossible to punish someone in a coma? B) Is the death penalty not a punishment at all if it is performed painlessly?


Assume for the sake of argument that there is no afterlife, and when you die you just cease to exist. Materialism is true, perhaps, and nothing ever continues your existence later on. You die. Someone who doesn't like you and dislikes something you did decides to punish you in revenge, so they destroy your family, your possessions, and everything you spent your life working hard to achieve. If you're an author, perhaps they destroy every copy of your work. If you're an engineer, they blow up all the buildings or bridges you designed. Is this punishment? They certainly think they're doing this as a punishment. It seems to me that this is bad for you even if you never find out about it, because the significance your life might have had is wiped out.

The death penalty is a different issue, I think. A value hedonist wouldn't accept any of what I just said. The only thing they take to be good about a life is the pleasure you have. Yet a value hedonist could say that the death penalty is bad for you even if you die painlessly, because it robs you of the pleasure you might have otherwise had in the future. So I'm not sure that's as good an example.

I would actually have to disagree but on a more tangential line of thought. Death penalty does cause conscious suffering because the person does suffer mental anguish. But I do think we call the actually death more of the punishment. So would it be rather "punishment is taking something away from someone". Whether life, freedom, or a state normalcy?

The Epicurean argument against the harm of death would seem to say yes to both.

My question is 'what do you mean by "harm"'?

Epicurus can only make his argument because he has a further premise. For most hedonists, pleasure is the only positive good, and pain is the only negative bad. For Epicurus, there are no positive goods. There is just the negative bad, pain. Since the state of being dead has none of those, it is simply neutral. Life is either neutral or negative. Therefore, death can't be worse than life. So Epicurus wouldn't follow the standard hedonist argument I gave above, because he's not a standard hedonist. He flat-out insists that a longer life isn't any better than a shorter life, basically because 0+0=0. Even the best life doesn't improve quantitatively, and qualitatively improvement isn't possible on his premises.

I'd like to shift the conversation from the nature of harm to the nature of punishment since that is how my arguments went.

As far as I can tell, the main issue of contention was the nature of punishment--is punishment primarily retributive? If retribution is an essential element of punishment (and since retribution entails suffering), then punishment requires conscious suffering. However, if punishment is only secondarily retributive, i.e. retribution is *not* an essential element of punishment, then punishment does not require suffering.

It seems to me that punishment is primarily rehabilitative, and only secondarily retributive. For example, we punish our children not primarily in order to make them suffer, but in order that they might learn (using suffering as a tool to achieve that end).

Alternately, punishment might be primarily restorative--i.e. it helps mend the relationship between the guilty and the victim, usually by undoing some or all of the harm of the original offense.

Either way, if the retributive element is secondary--potentially there, but not necessary--then I think it holds that suffering is not necessary for punishment.

What do you guys think? Is punishment primarily retributive? Or rehabilitative? Or restorative?


If punishment is essentially rehabilitative, can you "punish" a person in a coma?

I also think some categories may be crossing. I think that a parent punishing a child for the purpose of rehabilitation/restoration is a picture of how God punishes his own children (cf. Heb. ch.12). Indeed, the claim that God punishes his children to make them more like him, rehabilitate their sinful nature, restore the relationship. is clearly a contrasting claim. Hebrews clearly teaches that some people are not God's children, so I say. Thus chapter 12 would make no sense if non-children's punishment was of the same nature.

So, for God's people I would say punishment is rehabilitative, for non-children in is retributive. I also think a retributive picture of punishment is clear from Scriptures teaching on those who are punished in hell.

This is why I find your point about punishing children unconvincing given the view of the family that I hold. Who/what it is supposed to picture.

If someone raped and murdered my child the punishment would be retributive. That's what I would want. That's what would be just.

I do think we can harm unconscious people, but we can't make them suffer.

I find the idea of unconscious punishment wholly unfulfilling. They were conscious when committing the crime, the should be conscious reaping the rewards.

I'm not sure retribution requires suffering, though. If I destroy someone's legacy, and as a result someone waits until I die and then destroys my legacy, it does seem to me to be retributive punishment. I've been punished by having my legacy removed. Yet that seems possible even if I never find out about it. So I don't think we should assume that not having conscious suffering means it's not retributive. That's not an argument against anything you're positively saying, but it's an argument against the method you're using to get there. The counterexamples you're trying to come up with might not serve as counterexamples if that's right. We'd need to find something that's essential to retribution that isn't present some case of punishment.

One of the problems with the case of children is that many people prefer to distinguish between punishment and discipline, where punishment is retributive and discipline is rehabilitative (or in the case of children, most often just habilitative). I have some sympathy with this. I don't have any problem with rehabilitative or restorative justifications for actions that might also be justified retributively. But it has always sounded a little funny to me to call that punishment.

These arguments only go so far theologically, because if we're relying on biblical texts we don't want to assume that when they use punishment language it corresponds to exactly what we mean by such language. It may be that the Greek concepts behind punishment-language are wider or more narrow than the ones our punishment-language involves. So if we're doing this in order to see how to interpret, say, the language about punishment in Paul or Jesus' discussions of hell, then it's not going to get us very far. So I'm a little worried about that. The point I made in the previous paragraph is just as much subject to that difficulty as any points in the other direction, but it's an issue worth thinking through.

One definitional matter I want to get clear on is what you mean by saying punishment is primarily rehabilitative but secondarily retributive. Which of the following do you mean (or do you mean something else entirely)?

1. It always must be rehabilitative (i.e. that's an essential characteristic of all punishment) but is sometimes also retributive.
2. It's usually rehabilitative (but perhaps not always) but sometimes rehabilitative (and it can be one or the other but isn't always both).

Me- If someone raped and murdered my child the punishment would be retributive. That's what I would want. That's what would be just.

And if the murderer/rapist turns out to be a Christian, or becomes a Christian, what kind of punishment is just? And what would you want?

It seems that there are two ways of being just: retributive and rehabilitative (e.g. God retributively punishes non-Christians in hell, and while rehabilitavily punishing Christians). So to say something is just is not to say that that is the only acceptable response.

Jeremy - While I would like it if punishment was always rehabilitative or restorative, that seems empirically untrue. However, I think it would suffice for my arguments to show that in many cases, punishment is not primarily retributive, though it can certainly have retributive aspects.

And, as you astutely point out, even if we stick with retributive punishment, it would suffice to show that suffering is not necessary for retribution, so your example about destroying someone's legacy as retribution works as well.

I think the question of justice is difficult too. Would it be just if a Christian were sent to hell? We sometimes talk as if we're not being given justice but mercy. But in another sense it is just if Christ's death satisfies God's justice. I think we have to say that it's not a violation of justice to be spared from hell because of Christ, or else God becomes immoral, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be an instance of justice if we were sent to hell, because that would mean we wouldn't have been covered by Christ. So it does seem ok to say that we were spared our just fate.

And, as you astutely point out, even if we stick with retributive punishment, it would suffice to show that suffering is not necessary for retribution, so your example about destroying someone's legacy as retribution works as well.

It would suffice for what? I'm not sure what conclusion you're trying to argue for. Consider:

1. Punishment doesn't require retribution.
2. Punishment doesn't require suffering.
3. Hell doesn't require suffering.

If the conclusion is 1, then it doesn't. If it's 2, then it does, provided that the counterexample in question is a genuine example of punishment without suffering. If the conclusion is 3, you'll need to show more than 2. To show that an instance of punishment can be punishment without suffering doesn't show that full punishment for sin can have no suffering. It might be that full punishment for sin requires suffering, even if some punishment doesn't. But I'm unclear what conclusion you hope to support with this.

It would suffice for what?

#2. What I'm mainly looking for right now is support for the idea that punishment doesn't require suffering since the idea that punishment *does* require suffering seems to be somewhat widepread and is in my opinion wrong.

More specifically, I'd like to rebut the notion that the *essential* element of punishment is suffering, since that is the notion that bothers me the most. Of course, (2) goes on to refute this notion as well since if suffering is not necessary for punishment, then suffering certainly can't be the essential element of punishment.

1) It probably is a common belief

2) punishment (if rehabilitative, restorative or retributive) does require some sort of consciousness to effect its goal. Suffering (as a constant beat down) may not be necessary, though suffering (as in awareness of Wrong) is.


(1) The person in the coma (maybe a genocidal megalomaniac and rapist) after some damning evidence comes to light, gets convicted for murder and rape, has all his possessions taken and lastly they're to remove him from life support. Well, there's one bit that still hasn't been addressed: his awareness of Wrongness or at the very least his awareness of others declaring Wrongness. So if rehabilitative it's ineffectual because he's not aware of anything to lead him to that state if he didn't at least wake up for a moment. If restorative, likewise. If retributive, its unequal because everyone else knows its wrong except him--even if he doesn't agree with it. So its say 99% payback but missing that 1% that says "They caught me and have decided I'm wrong."

(2) The death penalty is a punishment because all the bits are in place. Life was taken, Life is being taken. All are aware the line was crossed, the person is aware the Line was crossed. In some states, when we try to impress the enormity of the judgment yet lack a death penalty we might have consecutive life imprisonments to underscore how very Wrong the act was.

Let's say my kids do something wrong and I decide they lost TV Time, but I don't tell them. I put them down for a nap and when they wake up I notify them that they slept during their TV Time because of how they were acting. During their nap they didn't feel any loss of their TV Time but the enormity of the Loss became firm when they woke up and are told what has happened. I think the same thing applies to the Coma guy (when he wakes up) or the death penalty guy (before he's given the shot) although in a different level since where they're at in life differs greatly from the Psycho Coma guy.

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