Thomas Larson

Do any Google search for “punishment” and “rehabilitation” and you will find that the results tend to insert a “vs.” between the two terms.  It seems that to punish (inflict some penal evil) a person is one thing, to “rehabilitate” and make them better is another.

There is a tradition, however, that argues the unlikely claim that one of the goals of punishment itself is to rehabilitate — that one punishes in order to rehabilitate.  This may at first seem surprising, but it may seem even more surprising when it is further insisted upon and made clear that the punishment in mind is not some watered down “time-out” for the guilty party to think about what he or she has done wrong; rather, the line of thinking keeps fully in mind that to punish means to inflict a penalty, to make the guilty suffer an evil for what he or she has done wrong.  And so we might reasonably ask the following: how does suffering an evil deliberately inflicted on us by others, cause any kind of “rehabilitation”?  The answer to this is found in an underused meaning of “rehabilitation.”

I suppose the most commonly used meaning of “rehabilitation” today is “to restore or bring to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity” (Merriam Webster).  This is the sense we employ when, after an injury, we say we undergo “rehab.”  It is also the sense employed sometimes to describe the treatment of someone who is psychologically or emotionally disturbed.  It can even be employed to describe the education of someone who has a deficient sense of moral right and wrong – after which process the person would be in a moral condition suitable for useful and constructive communal activity.  But rehabilitation in this sense of the term is brought about by therapy or education, neither of which essentially involves inflicting of a penal evil. Punishment is surely distinct from both therapy and education.  If punishment has rehabilitation as its end, it must aim at a different kind of rehabilitation than that described above.  What then is the rehabilitation that punishment effects?

To rehabilitate also has as a meaning “to reinstate,” “to restore to good repute, reestablish the good name of” (Merriam Webster), and it is in this sense that punishment can rehabilitate. A man who willingly does wrong destroys his good standing in community, and his fellows actually have the right to hold that wrong against him.  (If I, for example, on account of culpable negligence, fail to submit a blog entry on time, Prof. Banach has a right to hold this failure against me.)  And the more serious the evil, the more it is held against the guilty agent.  Though perhaps appropriate and just, this “holding against” is not usually all that useful.  A community who holds a crime against an individual does not admit that individual into full standing in that community.  They can and probably will hold that action against him until he has “made things right.”  Until he does this, he and the community are in tension.  And so, both the guilty person, and the person who has care for the common good have an interest in rectifying this unfortunate situation.

One part of making things right is restitution.  If a man smashed my mail box, one thing he must do in order to be restored to good standing in the community is replace my mail box.  But sometimes simply making restitution is not enough.  We can see this if we compare two cases.

In the first case, while driving his car, Fred, through negligence, looses track of where he is on the road and veers too close to my mailbox and destroys it.  He’s not usually negligent, but he was this time.  He did not mean to do this, but he is responsible.  If he replaces my mail box, and he has not terribly inconvenienced me, all is well.  If he does not replace my mailbox he would be in the wrong and I would justly hold this wrong against him.  But if he does replace my mailbox I would be a jerk (unjust) to continue to hold this mistake against him.  In this case, simply by making restitution, Fred is restored to good standing with me.

Now consider a second case:  Tim is out with a group of friends having a whooping good time.  And what is more fun after a few beers than driving around smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat?  Tim and his friends, however, get caught.  Unlike in Fred’s case, the wrong they have done was not beside their intention; they didn’t do it out of negligence, they did it deliberately.  Everyone who had his mailbox smashed will hold these acts against Tim and his friends.  They will hold against them both the destruction of their property and the interior disposition of the culprits during their act.  They will probably even speak badly of Tim and his friends in the community; they will tell (inform and remind) others of the evil Tim and friends did.

Now even if Tim and his friends replace all the mailboxes they smashed (which they might do by the force of law), people may reasonably hold this act against them.  Restoration of the damaged property was enough for Fred because he did not intend the evil he did.  But Tim and his friends knew what they were doing, and they meant to do it.  Victims and other members of the community may continue justly to hold this act against them.

Now what if Tim and his friends sincerely want to be fully restored to good standing in the community?  Can something be done that would demand that people give up holding their crime against them?  How might this occur?  By restoring the damaged property, they paid one kind of debt.  Undergoing punishment is the way to pay the moral debt.

Two of the purposes of punishment are retribution (getting what you deserve) and rehabilitation.  One thing retribution demands is that the punishment fit the crime and not be excessive (“an eye for an eye” sets a limit on punishment).  The principle of retribution says “You may not inflict more than this much evil, because that would be punishing the culprit more than he deserves.”  The goal of rehabilitation, on the other hand, sets a kind of minimum standard of punishment; the person must be punished at least this much so that the victims and community might be obliged to give up holding the crime against him.  If a person has been adequately punished for a crime, then victims and the community are obliged by the demands of justice to no longer hold the man’s crime against him!  (This is the brighter side of punishment.)  For the good of the guilty person, then, so that he might be restored to the moral community, a judge must select and impose an adequately serious evil.  After an adequate punishment, the judge and the punished can justly demand that the community give up holding the crime against the punished.

This feature of punishment as rehabilitation is used very effectively in the movie The Green Mile.  One of the characters in the movie, Arlen Bitterbuck, is on death row and is eventually executed.  He never denies his guilt, nor does he protest his impending execution.  He expresses the hope that by being truly repentant and undergoing his punishment, he might be granted a moral restoration:

You think if a man sincerely repents on what he done wrong, he might get to go back to the time that was happiest for him and live there forever? Could that be what heaven is like?

Most of the guards in the movie treat Bitterbuck with sufficient respect.  The exception, however, and the villain of the movie, is Percy Wetmore, described as “mean, careless, and stupid.” After Bitterbuck’s execution, Percy crudely mocks the body: “Adios, Chief. Drop us a card from hell, let us know if it’s hot enough.” But one of the other guards violent objects to Percy’s treatment of Bitterbuck: “He’s paid what he’s owed. He’s square with the house again, so keep your goddamn hands off him.”

Bitterbuck has undergone the ultimate punishment of death.  We are left to believe that the punishment fits the crime – he’s not being punished more than he deserves, so the demands of retribution has not been violated.  But what is very revealing is that after his execution Bitterbuck has a renewed moral standing.  Before, because of his crime, he was a kind of second class citizen.  After his punishment, he’s “square with the house again.”  No one can justly hold his crime against him anymore.

Punishment is not always at odds with rehabilitation.  In fact, sometimes punishment, real punishment, is the only way to bring about rehabilitation.

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.

-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.

-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements

Albert Camus- The Stranger

-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic

Online edition

Saint Augustine’s Confessions

Online edition

-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations

Online edition

Slavoj Zizek


-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium


-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy

Online edition,M1

-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex

-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Plato- The Apology

Online Edition

-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic

Online edition

-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act

Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”

Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief

-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias

Online edition

Plato- The Republic

Online edition

Plato- The Apology

Online Edition

-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro

A new twist on an old problem.

Traditional natural law theorists are sometimes accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, since their arguments about good and evil (both natural and moral) are usually based on a theoretical grasp of a thing’s nature. Proponents of the so-called “New Natural Law Theory,” for instance, blame the traditional natural law theorists for attempting to “deduce” a list of goods from a theoretical grasp of a things nature. Complicated arguments usually ensue regarding the relationship between the practical and theoretical operations of reason.

Now I think the naturalistic fallacy is closely related to the devaluing of nature typical of modern thought. For pre-moderns like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, on the other hand, nature is value laden, so that a theoretical grasp of a thing’s nature in some way entails knowledge of what is good for that thing.

I wish, however, to address this claim that traditional natural law starts with a theoretical grasp of a thing’s nature and then from it “deduces” what is good for that thing. Discussions with my colleague Joe Spoerl have led me to adopt the following position: One can’t deduce an “ought” from an “is”, but we do get an “is” from an “ought,” and we get an “ought not” from an “is.” In this blog entry I’ll briefly explain and defend this claim.

Let’s start with getting an “ought not” from an “is.” We ought not to do evil. Evil, as Augustine and many others argue, is a privation of a proper good. A good being “proper” or not depends on its relation to a thing’s essence. Proper goods belong to a thing in virtue of the thing’s essence. Hence, eye sight is a proper good of a frog, but not a proper good of a rock; the privation of sight, or blindness, is an evil that a frog can suffer, but a rock cannot. In light of this definition of evil, it follows that in order to recognize evil one must first start from a knowledge of a thing’s essence, for we can’t recognize a “privation” unless we first know the proper “completion.” The more we know a thing, the more we know its proper goods, and the more we are able to recognize the privation of those goods as evil.

This line of reasoning supports the claim that from a theoretical grasp of a thing’s essence or nature we actually can deduce what things are evil for it. For example, a theoretical grasp of human nature would include in it the notion of “rational;” hence, we can deduce that the privation of reason is an evil for the human being, and the willful privation of reason a moral evil. Knowledge of a thing’s nature is thus required in order to recognize a lack as an evil. What a thing “is” must be known before one recognizes what “ought not” to be the case with it.

Here, however, is an interesting twist: where as knowledge of a thing’s nature is prior to knowing what is evil for it, knowledge of what is good for a thing is prior to knowing its nature. This is because, as Aristotle says in the De Anima II, we know a thing’s nature in terms of its powers, a power in terms of its activity, and an activity in terms of the object to which it is directed. The object brings into act and there by perfects and make intelligible the otherwise latent and incomplete natural power of the substance. All of the powers of the soul, then, are known in terms of the objects to which they are directed and by which they are actualized: the power of vision, for example, is made known by colors; the power of hearing is made known by sounds. After experience and reflection on the relationship between a thing and its surrounding environment, we progress to judgments concerning certain objects as perfective of a thing – that is, we judge that object “x” is “perfective of” and hence “good for” that thing; and upon this judgment we infer that the thing is of such a kind as to have “x” as one of its goods.

A things nature is known in terms of the goods that perfect it. Knowledge of goods is in this a way prior to knowledge of a things essence. From this it is clear that one cannot start with a knowledge of the essence and go on to deduce what goods belong to it. Rather, we see what things are good for a thing, and thereby come to a knowledge of the thing’s nature.

In this way, I would agree that you cannot deduce an “ought” (good) from an “is” – no deduction that starts from a thing’s essence arrive at a good that was not previously known. But you can and do get an “is” (a theoretical understanding of a things nature) from an “ought.”

For the sake of brevity I’ve had to sacrifice a certain degree of precision. When the inadequacies are detected I hope that they can serve as the occasion for further discussion.

We all know that a “citizen” has co-responsibility for the ruling of a political community. In order to rule well, one must be able to deliberate well about the good of the whole community. Only a bad citizen would try to organize the community in such a way as to benefit his own private interests at the expense of the good of the community as a whole. A “good citizen” surely would want to contribute to what is called “the common good.” The common good usually said to be the proper end of the political art.

What exactly is the common good, though? What precisely and concretely are we aiming at when we aim at the common good? I think such questions are very similar to the question “what is happiness?” On the surface the answers seem obvious, but when we go below the surface, we find a host of difficult questions.

In this blog entry I’d like to make a few distinctions that I think are valuable to thinking about the common good. I offer them in a sense out of duty – I think I as a philosopher ought to have something to say on the subject, especially since I live in a country where I am a citizen and have a responsibility in promoting the common good. But I offer these also with the hope that, should they be deficient, they might be refined, corrected or rejected by shaper minds.

I posit that there are three kinds of goods we call “common.”

  1. Some goods are called “common” because they are private goods that everyone needs. Everyone, for instance, needs food, clothing, shelter and medicine. I would be promoting the common good, then, if I were to arrange things in such a way that everyone might not be deprived of these necessities. The need for these goods is common, but the goods themselves are not; the goods themselves are held, used, and consumed privately.
  2. Some goods are commonly held and commonly used as means to privately held, diverse ends. An example would be a road. Many people share the use of the road. My use does not necessarily take away from anyone else’s use of the road (barring a traffic jam). But a road is good not as an end, but as a means to an end. So while we all use the road, we value it differently due to our using it for different ends. This kind of a common good is not a final end. (The sun is also a common good in this sense – diverse things depend upon it in diverse ways.)
  3. Some goods are ends or goals that integrate the diverse activities of a group. A good example is a choir. A tenor sings one line which, by itself, lacks completeness; an alto sings something different, and so on. Together, they choir members produce a good that no one of them could achieve alone. In this third kind of common good, then, the end itself is common, but the activities that achieve it are many and diverse. This common good gives coherence and meaning to the diverse activities. This kind of common good is a final end.

With these distinctions in mind, we might ask: what is the common good that political order aims (or should aim) at? Does it aim at a final end that integrates all of the diverse activities in the city? Or does it aim at the second kind of common – promoting and preserving the means by which individuals might pursue their own, private goods? The above distinctions don’t answer these questions, but they do help clarify what we mean when we use the term “common good.”

I’d like to offer one more point for consideration: I have run across accounts of the common good that claimed that the paradigm of promoting the common good is welcoming and being hospitable to the stranger. Now I think that generosity and hospitality are great goods and one who violates the code of hospitality departs from the path of human decency. But hospitality governs how we are to treat a stranger, someone who is emphatically not part of my community. I dare say, then, that one’s idea of the “common good” would be impoverished if one took hospitality as the paradigmatic virtue of one promoting the common good. A community of people together can and ought to aspire to an end more noble than merely to treat one another with the justice due a stranger.

The debate between Platonists and Aristotelians is one of the most ancient of philosophic issues. This is an informal panel discussion of the basic issues, featuring four members of the Philosophy Department at Saint Anselm College.

Click here to download or you can listen directly at the Philosophy Podcast site.


From the Philosophy Department at Saint Anselm College

Robert Anderson
Professor Anderson’s homepage

David Banach
Professor Banach’s homepage

Tom Larson
Professor Larson’s homepage

Kevin Staley
Professor Staley’s homepage

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Thomas Larson is the eleventh profile in the series.

In this interview, Professor Larson talks about how he became interested in philosophy and about his interests in Aristotle’s metaphysics and Plutarch.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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There is a kind of paradox attached to the Aristotelian notion of substance. For “substance” is distinguished from the so called “accidents,” and is said to be the true goal of our minds’ quest for knowing. As it is not one of the accidents, substance is not something sensible; no description can ever give you the substance of a thing. And yet, it’s only through the sensually observable (hence through the accidents) that the human mind can arrive at the substance of the thing. This process usually goes by the name “abstraction” – we abstract what is substantial from what is accidental in order to arrive at the essence of a thing. But accidents are essential to material substances. And some accidents are called essential properties, while the others are ‘merely accidental’. But how can we distinguish the essential properties from mere accidents without first knowing the substance? And how can we arrive at the substance of a thing without first being able to distinguish an essential property from a quality that is merely accidental?

What do we know when we know the substance of a thing? What makes us think substance can really be known at all? And if it can be known, what must the mind do to reach and articulate it with out obscuring it further?