Punishment for Moral Failure

Those irreligious folks over at Patheos asked an interesting question for the latest iteration of their values posts: How/should we punish people for moral failure? Wisely, they limit this to adults in your personal and professional network. In processing the question, I thought of potential moral failures that exist on some sort of governmental level, but this really is a different question, because the problem cannot be located in an individual. Indeed, that is both the benefit and the detriment of bureaucracy. The figures we try to locate as the real problem (the President, the CEO, etc.) rarely bear more than a portion of the blame we wish them to carry.

This question is constructed, though, so that we can assume an individual is to blame for a moral faux pas. And this individual is not someone clearly under our moral authority, such as children would be. Is it ever okay to punish someone (personally) for a moral failure in this situation? I would like to be able to say yes, but I don’t think so.

There are perhaps some constructed situations in which it would be appropriate. If, for example, you have an accountability partner of some sort, where the partnership is based on mutual motivation toward a common goal, then it would be incumbent on you to point out the moral failure of the partner when he or she fails to fulfill the aim in view of which the partnership was formed. A marriage would be a formal example, but most of the informal partnerships I can think of would be constructed around goals or aims that aren’t specifically moral, such as exercising regularly or staying away from particular foods. As a Christian teenager, I’m fairly certain I was involved in groups designed to be accountable for one’s sexual purity. In these types of situations in which the accountability was established beforehand, punishment would presumably take the form of whatever was decided beforehand as well.

The more complex situation, though, is one in which someone in your circle of social influence commits a moral transgression about which they had no explicit contract with you. What, if anything, should you do? Well, the situation is obviously much different if you personally are the victim of that failure or transgression, and it is different if the victim is not competent, so let’s set those contingencies aside for a moment.

There is only one situation I can think of in my personal experience. Many years ago, an acquaintance decided to get married. A relative of the acquaintance who did not approve of the marriage, on ostensibly Christian moral grounds, took it upon him/herself to punish the acquaintance by cutting off contact with him/her and not attending the wedding. I am/was aware of the perceived moral failure (in fact, I think the response was a greater moral failure because of its pride and self-righteousness, but I didn’t punish that one myself), but wasn’t privy to the details of the situation. From my vantage point, however, it seemed that the acquaintance was only temporarily hurt and then moved on while the punisher maintained a strong sense of indignation and self-righteousness that was compounded by the fact that his/her punishment was ineffective.

The evidence is anecdotal, but it tells me that “punishing” a peer for a moral failure in unlikely to be effective if the goal is to chasten the individual’s behavior. If the intent is to distance oneself from a perceived moral impurity, which may be legitimate in certain cases, the “punishment” in the form of a withdrawal of relationship is not primarily intended as punishment but a cessation of association, which may or may not have that effect and should be a point of indifference to the initiator anyway.

If a moral failure is regulated in some other social or legal sphere, such as a physical assault, then your personal punishment is unlikely to be significant in comparison. In addition, if you are aware of a moral failure that is also a legal transgression and decide to punish the person yourself rather than inform legal authority, it is unlikely that you would be sufficiently protected from blame, if the transgression was uncovered, by explaining that you punished the moral failure yourself.

In short, then, we live in a society in which there is some overlap between moral failure and institutional punishment, as there should be. It seems to me that if a moral failure is a legally punishable offense, the institutional punishment takes precedence over your personal punishment (although, as mentioned above, this might be augmented by termination of the relationship with the offender, the aim of which would primarily be to preserve oneself and not “punish” the other). If, as in my example above, the moral failure is not legally punishable, the scope of any punishment is going to be limited and will be of significant cost to the punisher as well. Assuming that the punisher and the offender are peers, I consequently see little ground or benefit for aiming at punishment.

If, as in the case above, both parties are members of a common religious or social institution that regulates such behavior, the punisher could of course remind the offender of the requirements of the institution, if those are clear. However, in the case of divorce, for example, although strong prohibitions are made against it, Christians get divorced at least as much as others, so the practical basis for personal punishment would be slim. The institution can punish as an institution, but I would argue greater moral failures come from individuals attempting to embody the institution and enact its punishment in its place.

Outside of institutional logic or the scenarios constructed above, I cannot see a situation in which it would be safe to assume that the moral failure for which the offender would be punished is understood and shared by the offender. There is no objective reference against which to administer punishment. Common decency is too platitudinous to support personal punishment for moral failure. In my capacity solely as an individual, in relation to peers, who am I to judge?