November 2008


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.

Why do we celebrate birthdays? Each year on our birthday we look for some significance. Sometimes it is a social or developmental marker — entering adolescence or middle age, reaching legal majority, reaching the legal drinking age, for example. Often we ask each other, “do you feel any different?” or “do you feel older?” We wonder if we have accomplished enough given our age, are we ahead or behind, are we still full of promise or has our time passed us by. These numbers — 16, 18, 21, 30, 40, 70, 80 — take on a life of their own, imposing their own questions and meanings upon us, enticing us or forcing us to interpret our lives according to them. As the years roll by and the numbers grow larger we start to think less of the day of our birth, of our beginning, and more of the diminishing time left to us and our end. If our birthday is meant to commemorate the event of our coming into the world, then it seems that we slowly and almost inevitably lose sight of this event as it is crowded out by other meanings, longings, or regrets. Is the only remaining significance of our birthday then to help us count the years, to help us see ourselves through the social expectations that lend legal or psychological import to certain numbers rather than others? We tend to forget that our system of measuring time, our legal system of majority and minority, our developmental theories, while all having very real consequences on our lives, are constructs and generalizations, abstractions that come to shape our self-understanding from the outside, not from the reality of our own existence as a unique person.

I would like to consider another way of thinking about the significance of birthdays. I believe that our practice of celebrating a birthday by adding and counting the years, while having some real importance for the reasons mentioned above (as well as others), tends to be misleading because it suggests a misconception about the nature of time and about the relation between contingency and meaning or value. When we are born and we begin to count our time, we are immediately inclined to think of time as a kind of allotment that we have been given. We tend to think that at birth we are given a certain amount of time — a life-span and a life-expectancy. If we go to the doctor regularly, eat well and exercise, avoid unnecessary risks and unhealthy behaviors, we should live for a long time. We tend to think that the arc of our life is pre-given with us at our birth with something approaching an inner necessity. The numbers we use to count and measure our time become the reality that defines life, that shapes our expectations, that provides hope and often leads to regret or despair, simply a fact of life. It follows from this that we can expect a certain progression and take control over it.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In his short meditation “On Old Age,” Seneca deconstructs our preconceptions about time and existence. He writes that as he had reached the point of being undeniably ‘old’ he had gotten into the habit of thinking about his life with regret and despair — regret at the loss of promise, opportunity, youth; and despair at the thought of approaching death, of the little time left, of the decay of his body. But then he reminded himself: young men ought to think of death just as much as old men. Death is no more pressing for the old then it is for the young. Each day we wake up, he writes, is a new gift, purely contingent, and should be accepted with the same kind of joy as our first. In other words, time is not a portion, span, or quantity that we can expect and expend, it is a pure gift and as such it is absolutely contingent. No matter how healthy we try to be, or how conscientious we are about doctor visits, nothing we do can guarantee that we will still be alive tomorrow, and the fact that we are alive right now cannot be attributed to anything we have done in the past.

I am not making an argument in favor of reckless disregard for our health and well-being! If we did not practice good habits and try to develop our potential as much as possible we would progressively undermine our ability to enjoy our lives and live with dignity. But at the same time we should not fall into the illusion that we are the agents who have sufficient power to sustain our own existence. Descartes comments on this in his Meditations when he argues that at every instant the existence of a finite being is dependent on something beyond it, something greater than it, without which it would perish. To believe that I alone can preserve my existence once it has been give to me is to believe that I am able to constantly re-create myself, to produce at each moment my own existence as a causa sui. But just as our birth is an event which thrusts us into the world — without our having asked for it or played any role in making it happen — each day we wake up, each moment of our life, is given to us anew as a gift which nothing we do could necessitate. I call it a gift because it is arrives gratuitously; because it comes to us not from us; because it comes to us not as a reward we have earned, like a paycheck, but as a contingent fact that we accept rather than will. As Sartre makes so clear, our being is contingent, it is de trop, ‘too much’, more than makes sense. While we may have a moral right to life and political right to life, we do not have a metaphysical right to life — in other words, I cannot legitimately demand that I deserve to come into being and I deserve to exist for another day. I can, and ought to, say to any other person that they have no right to take my life; and I must remember that I have no right to take my own life. But this is precisely because it is something handed over to us that exceeds our logic of exchange, value, reward and punishment. In fact this gratuitous gift of life is the basis upon which we are able to love and respect (or condemn and contempt as the case may be) anything else — without the gratuitous gift of life we would not be able to wish for anything, love anything, value anything, or demand anything. Far from being an object whose value and meaning we determine, it is the absolute source of our being able to appreciate anything at all.

Given this insight, what then is the significance of a birthday? I suggest the following: A birthday is an occasion on which we celebrate that original event of our birth, not in order to count the time that has passed and speculate about the time that is left, but to remind ourselves that each day is a new gift. The presentation of gifts is a symbolic reminder of this truth. But I do not want to fall into the saccharine cliché that “life is a gift.” Even more than any other gift, life is something that is hard to accept and often a burden to bear. This is a matter of the logical essence of a true gift: in its pure contingency it logically puts the receiver in the position of being un-worthy or un-deserving; we have not earned life, either when it seems too hard to bear or when it seems more joyous than we could have imagined. Life precedes and exceeds our ability to earn it or deserve it. More than any other gift, life is not given in response to our wishes; rather it is the purely contingent basis of all our wishes. Thus life is not always what we would have wished for, and it is never reducible to a ‘just desert’. Perhaps we become so concerned with measuring our time precisely in an effort to gain some control over life, to convert it into a calculable good, a controllable and expendable resource or potential. Calculating helps us hide the pure contingency of time and of existence. It makes us feel as though we make our time and we deserve our time. But we risk transforming life — and hence all values — into an exchange value, in other words, a commodity. If we think of a birthday as a symbolic reminder of the pure gift that is life — as the incalculable basis of every attempt to calculate a meaning or value — we will not escape from contingency but perhaps we can more fully respect it as an incommensurable value and protect it from the persistent effort to commodify it, an effort which leads inexorably to the relativity all values and meanings, that is, to nihilism. Even when life is not exactly the kind of gift we would have asked for or think we deserve, especially then, it appears as a source of meaning and value which can never be reduced to our standards because they are all born from it. Even our confusion and suffering, our longing for more time, are a testament to the incalculable good that it is to be.

Dr. David Weissman
Professor of Philosophy at City College of New York

Thursday, November 6, 2008

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There is a certain naïve assumption which lies at the heart of most philosophic and scientific investigations, certainly those, at least, which have grown from modernism. This assumption is perhaps most explicitly expressed in the thought of Rene Descartes, who makes it essential to his path to philosophical certainty, but could equally be found in the work of any number of other thinkers. Simply stated, the assumption is that that world is such that it does not, indeed cannot, deceive us. Everything that is present in the world is thus available for and subject to investigation and, eventually, full knowledge. Thus even those dark or shadowy elements of existence, those elements that for whatever reason remain closed to us for now, as if veiled in a cloud of unknowing, are not conceived of as essentially hidden, but only temporarily hidden, perhaps as the result of not yet having turned our attention to it sufficiently to illuminate it completely or perhaps because we have not yet developed the sufficient means for investigating it properly, say some technology which will unlock the phenomenon for us. In any case, we think, it is only a matter of more work or time before these mysteries too are unlocked and enlightened by our intellect. This is the philosophical payoff for Descartes’ investigation into the existence and nature of God in the Third Meditation: that the world is a place given to us clearly and distinctly and thus capable of yielding certainty. But, is this really the case? Is it true that everything which is in the world is subject to such illuminative investigations, capable of being fully conceptualized and understood, or are there some things which given their very nature, and not merely our lack of time or technology or inclination, which remain veiled and hidden from us – apparent, but still unknown?

It strikes me that there are some objects, some happening or occurrences, some beings, in a word, which are not available to full investigation in the way traditionally pursued by modern philosophy and science, and not because of any deficiency within us, but as such, because they are superlative, for whatever reason . indeed, it seems to me that there are some phenomena which are too big to be framed by our understanding or too dense to be fully illuminated by our reason. Thus, though apparent, these beings nevertheless hold themselves back from full conceptualization within the modern framework. One could compare these phenomena then to something akin to a black hole: though certainly existent the black whole is such that it resists direct appearance – being so dense it absorbs any light directed towards it.

To understand what it is we’re driving at here we can point to a very concrete example, the Shoah, the black hole at the heart of the 20th century. How is one to make sense of the madness and the horror of such an occurrence? How can the death of so many be fully framed for understanding? How can such a radical appearance of evil ever be fully understood? It seems to me that there is something inherent to the nature of such a tragedy which denies any attempt to approach it directly, any attempt to illuminate it by reason. It sticks in throat of whomever would attempt to digest it, absorbs the light of whomever would illumine it, and paralyzes whomever approaches it directly.

So how are we to talk about such phenomena? How are we to approach them without being transfixed or without yielding the light we shine upon them? Or, is such a task impossible – a kind of hubristic fantasy? Do such phenomena truly fall, by their very nature, beyond the scope of language and outside the boundaries of understanding – or do they merely resist a certain kind of understanding and certain kind of approach? In attempt to answer this question it is useful to turn to another who faced a similar difficulty.

It seems to me that Perseus faced a similar task in his attempt to slay the gorgon, Medusa. Knowing that any direct, illuminative approach would inevitably end in failure Perseus, with the help of the gods of course, struck upon a novel solution to his problem. Instead of approaching the monster directly, head on as it were, Perseus choose, against all intuition, to approach her indirectly, moving backwards towards his goal, never looking at her straightforwardly, but only obliquely via the inverted reflection provided him by the backside of his shield. In this way Perseus was able to gaze upon the monster without being turned to stone and illuminate her without being overwhelmed by her presence. Perhaps we can take something from this story in our own attempts to approach and apprehend ontologically dense phenomena like the Shoah. Knowing that any direct approach will inevitably end in failure, perhaps like Perseus, we must, counter-intuitively, pursue the phenomena obliquely, perhaps through some mimetic reversal or via what Merleau-Ponty termed an indirect ontology.

Of course this would mean that sometimes, against our better judgment, the most direct route to such a phenomena may appear to avoid it entirely; as is the case, for example, in Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich, which is, in my opinion one of the most powerful reflections upon the Shoah ever filmed, not because it ever treats it directly, indeed I don’t think it is mentioned once in the film, but because one cannot watch or understand the film without constantly thinking of the horror of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

This brief reflection is not meant to treat the subject of such an indirect ontology completely, nor to completely settle the question of how to deal with such ontologically dense phenomena as radical evil, or for that matter radical good; instead it is only meant to invite conversation and to call into question one of the unspoken assumptions at work in the traditional understanding of philosophical and scientific investigation. Let me conclude then by inviting further discussion on this subject either via the blog, or perhaps in a future meeting of the philosophy club. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.