Thursday, November 25, 2010

Imagination & the Mystery of Just Punishment

For the Christian, judgement, in the final instance, is God's alone. Yet temporal justice must still done. Distinguishing between what is ultimately someone's just reward and what just punishment we may meet out is a difficult one. Not only do we find it difficult to distinguish between what punishment belongs to God and what punishment is proper to this world, we also find it difficult to distinguish between what a just punishment may be and what is properly merciful in the instance. We also confuse justice with what is necessary to protect society as a whole, and other purely pragmatic considerations. Breaking these apart on a theoretical level is difficult, and ultimately, not a purely rational exercise. Reason gives us no certainty as to what justice permits in terms of punishment, nor what justice requires. Ultimately, our knowledge of temporal justice rests on our moral intuitions.

Given that our current practices of criminal punishment and civil liability so intertwines questions of pragmatism, mercy, and retribution, it is helpful to consider justice isolated from our current practices and freed from the pragmatic needs of our age and society. Imagination, particularly as encouraged through fiction, allows for such a freeing of just punishment. Works of the imagination, particularly in the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction can present questions of justice in stark terms. Reading George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice & Fire" has brought me closer to the depths of evil man is capable of, and cleared my vision of justice. I have a new appreciation for vengeance, which is at the root of all temporal justice. Without retribution, what right have we to punish someone for their own good, or restrain someone for the harm they may do? Betrayals yield murder and rape in Martin's stories. Such evils we rarely see absent mental illness in our society today. Seeing it up close, in the eyes of victims and murderers, we grasp the proper punishment- at times, death.

We must still transfer these moral intuitions into our age and society, make due consideration for pragmatic factors such as rehabilitation, social justice, ethnic reconciliation, and public safety and to remain merciful. Yet seeing what justice permits and what justice requires is the necessary starting place, lest we too become guilty; and works of the imagination can give us the clarity needed.

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