Tuesday, December 30, 2014
An interesting piece by Theodore Dalrymple, concerning the punishment meted out to a London financier who dodged his commuter fare in an unprecedentedly and willfully systematic way. Dalrymple reacts to a column by the philosopher Nigel Warburton, who advanced (but ultimately rejected) certain arguments that the financier should not have been banned for life from working on London's equivalent of Wall Street ("the City") because that would stymie his "redemption." I think I agree with Warburton that the justice of a society is conceptually prior to the justification of punishment within that society. But it is also true that a society need not achieve perfect justice before engaging in punishment practices.
[E]ven if the redemption of the punished were the object of punishment, this would be false. There is always more than one route to earthly redemption and to being useful to other people. It cannot possibly be that a return to finance is the only way Burrows could prove he had turned over a new leaf. Indeed, a return to the City, at least at a level that he would find attractive or commensurate with his knowledge and experience, would resemble impunity more than an opportunity for redemption.
But at any rate redemption is not the purpose of punishment, for if it were there would be no crimes beyond its reach, no crimes so terrible that they could not be forgiven. Far from being generous, this kind of reasoning seems to me callous—lacking in imagination about just how terrible crimes can be, an almost wilful disregard of the history of the 20th century. And if a Christian were to object that no crime is beyond the Savior’s forgiveness, it should be recalled that His kingdom was not of this world. As for us, we are men, not saviors.
The second, and “more worrying” reservation in Warburton’s mind is that the punishment will be applauded by a populace already angry with, and envious of, financiers. Thus it would “deflect attention from greater inequalities that some in the square mile [“the City”] perpetuate.” Burrows “may be a scapegoat,” he writes.
This seems a destructive argument. It is true, of course, that there are far greater crimes than the one under discussion here. But just as there can be only one richest man in the world, so there can be only one worst criminal (or a few equal worst criminals) in the world—at least if the badness of crime can be measured on an analogue scale, which I very much doubt. It is no excuse for one man that another man has done something even worse. I cannot argue in my defense, when caught for speeding, that I know someone who drove twice as fast and got away with it, rendering any fine imposed on me an act of scapegoating.
In the end, the philosopher (whose touchstones in this piece are John Rawls and Thomas Piketty) comes down on the side of banning the bloody one-percenter. Still, it is worth noting that his two hesitations before lowering the boom—they are not his alone, I suspect—are based upon misunderstandings, first that the purpose of punishment is redemption of the punished, and second, that no one can be rightfully punished until justice is perfect[.]