Science in Christian Perspective
The Student's Corner .
RESPONSIBILITY AND RETRIBUTION: A Narnian Dialogue
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From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 43-47.
Wan and weary, Peter stood with sword in hand surveying the
battlefield, lie had
hoped, as did most of his subjects, that complete peace would reign
victory. And, indeed, Narnia experienced a veritable renaissance of peace and
happiness for what seemed like years. And then it happened. At first there were
only rumours of dark goings on near the borders of the kingdom, then isolated
raids into the countryside, and finally a direct attack on Narnian settlements
by remnants of the Witch's army. In fact, it was not unlikely that
she was behind
it all. Peter had underestimatecl the strength and numbers of those rebellions
Fauns, Giants, and talking animals, and had gone out to meet them
forces. But Lucy had
the foresight to bring along her horn and, when the tide of battle seemed to be
turning against them, summoned Asian himself. Of course, once Asian had arrived
the battle was decided. The enemy lost all courage at his sight and roar, and
those that didn't flee pell-mell into the forest quickly surrendered.
Edmund and Susan to gather together the prisoners and, while they
were doing so,
approached the great Lion.
May I speak with you Asian?", he said bowing before his golden mane.
"Certainly Son of Adam," replied Aslan in his deep sonorous voice. "What perplexes you?"
Peter was at once sad and happy-happy to experience again the warmth and joy of Asian's presence, yet sad at having failed in judgment, and so in his duties as High King of Narnia. "I am sorry you had to he summoned, but I'm certainly glad that you are here now. Without your help I'm afraid to think what might have happened. But I must ask your further help in determining what ought to be done with these rebels. On the one hand, they have clearly transgressed the law, and yet I wonder how responsible they are for their actions. They have known only eternal winter under the White Witch, How can I justly punish such pitiful creatures? If, indeed, their choice has been determined by their environment, and their actions are inevitable, what form of punishment is most just?"
Asian released a deep sigh. "Very well Peter. Summon your brother and sisters. We shall discuss this problem on the return to Cai Paravel." When they were all together, prisoners in front, Peter gave the command and all marched toward the castle.
"Of course," said Asian, "before I can answer your question, we must consider a number of subsidiary issues. Insofar as we are determining the proper mode of punishment, and only indirectly touch upon the nature of justice, we cannot here discuss such questions as whether or not there is a private sphere of morality subject to criminal law. The real issue, however, is whether or not these transgressors have freedom of choice, and if so, responsibility for their actions. For this bears directly upon the kind of punishment you must assign."
"But Asian these are creatures, not humans protested Peter.
"Son of Adam these are more than creatures," growled the Lion. "These are your subjects, and for our purposes we shall speak of them and treat them as humans."
"Very well," said Peter, "oughtn't we then to define human nature-that is, oughtn't we to define those characteristics which make a creature human or humanlike?"
"As you wish," replied Asian, "but conduct your argument in a fashion befitting a High King of Narnia. How then do you define human nature?"
"Well ...," said Peter, "in the interests of brutal honesty I feel constrained to define human nature strictly in terms of what is observable-that is, in terms of the physiological. I suppose I would define human nature as the peculiar interaction of inorganic matter that becomes humanly organic life...,"
"And it seems to me," replied Asian, "that such definition will not aid you in determining the degree of culpability one must assign these rebels, nor the appropriate punishment, regardless of its validity. Your empirical definition may be valid, but is it exhaustive? I think not. Human life is a mystery insofar as the whole of it is not simply the sum of all the physiological parts. Is love, for example, reducible to biochemical reactions? The mystery lies in the fact that the whole is a kind of production from the interaction of all the parts. In any case, reality-whether we are speaking of human nature or history-requires different levels of description to capture its complexity. 'In the interests of brutal honesty' you have given me a scientific or empirical description of the physiological constitution of human life. But this level of description is inadequate because it provides only empirical data, and no data carry with them their own interpretation-which interpretation is necessary if we are to capture the complexity of human nature. Moreover, science can tell us only what is and not what ought to be-that is, science as methodology is not helpful in the realm of ethics, where we must decide what is right and wrong, and what human conduct merits punishment. In fact, what makes one human is the fact that one is a responsible being,' and this requires a level of description beyond the scientific or empirical."
The children were all ears. Snowflakes drifted about them and muffled their footsteps, creating an eerie silence that accentuated the force of Asian's words, Yet Peter was troubled. "If that is so," he inquired, "then what is 'free will'? Is it something we can observe physiologically, or does it defy description? Moreover, even if we speak of the will or mind of man as largely controlling his behavior, mightn't we conclude that the actual cells of his brain, in a material sense, and the mechanics of the way in which they operate and respond to stimuli, provide the all-sufficient explanation of how his mind works, of how he chooses, and how his personality develops?2 In this way he would have no free will per se but would be mechanistically determined by his brain,"
At this point Edmund, Susan, and Lucy could no longer restrain themselves. "And what about psychological determinism from our genes or from our environment?" asked Edmund.
"Or philosophical determinism," said Susan.
"Or divine providence," said Lucy.
"One at a time, please," said Asian. "Your point is well taken, Peter, but I can turn the tables on you and argue with as much force that it is the decisions that a man makes and the things he believes which produce continual changes in the chemical composition of his brain cells.3 One need only regard the feats of ascetics, or the successful treatment of psychosomatic illness with placebos, for proof of this. The only way to resolve the polarization between mind and body determinism is to posit the existence of a dialectical relationship between mind and body. In this sense, the individual choices cannot be explained on exclusively physical or exclusively mental, psychological, or spiritual bases. And, in fact, this is in accord with the unity and complexity of the human being as physical and other-than-physical, as I have already noted.4 From a more theoretical standpoint we can argue against the whole notion of causality, and so determinism. For even if we should he able to read every detail of the cellular activity of a man's brain at a time when he was still in the process of making a decision, and to confidently predict what decision that man would make, our prediction would have no validity for the man unless he accepted it-at which point his cognitive processes would affect vital changes in his brain cells anyway!5 Until he ac cepted the prediction, he would have considered the decision indeterminate, and for him it would have been. But causality does not really apply here because decision and cellular activity coincide-they do not cause each other-and so reflect the essential unity and complexity of physical and other-than-physical. Finally, if thought is wholly determined by the random motions of atoms in the brain, we have no reason to suppose our beliefs to be true, or that the notion of mechanistic determinism of mind by the brain itself is valid !"6
"But even if man is not physiologically determined in his choice by cellular activity in the brain," replied Edmund, "how do you answer the assertion that man's every action is so governed by the genes he has inherited, and by those traits of character and conscious or subconscious motivation inbred in him by the experiences of infancy and early childhood, as well as by the peculiar social, economic or political relations he finds forced upon him by society, that he cannot in any real sense be held to he a morally responsible agent.7 It seems to me this assertion bears directly upon our situation, insofar as these rebels have lived all their lives under the White Witch and in eternal winter. How can we legitimately hold them responsible for their actions when they are not responsible for the environment that has shaped them?"
"Have you forgotten so soon that the spell has been broken, my son?" replied Asian. "You especially ought to know that."
Edmund blushed while Asian continued. "Only the most extreme determinist
would maintain that man has no control whatsoever over his actions,
and that his
choices are inevitable and unavoidable due to inbred tendencies and the effects
of his environment upon him. There is a great difference between
and influence, between inevitability and causal determinatinn.8 The fact that
we often consciously struggle against those strong inbred tendencies
witnesses to the great faith commitment a strict determinist must have. We are
subject to many influences, within and without, which suggest but do
Granted, inbred tendencies, childhood experiences, and present environment all
limit the number of alternatives which one may choose, but within those limits
there is control over choice-there is freedom of choice. Indeed, we
all feel such
freedom in our daily lives. And because I have broken the spell of
the White Witch,
regardless of whether or not each person has a conscience upon which the law is
written, these rebels had as one alternative obedience to me and my
in spite of their strong inbred tendencies, they had access to resources beyond
themselves whereby they might have reformed their character had they
But they did not."
"But Asian," interrupted Susan, "it still seems to ow that there is a philosophical problem here for, if, as you admit, events are in the slightest degree causally determined, why can't someone yet maintain that everything happens through immutable laws, and that there is a vast complex of interrelated causal chains behind each event?"9
"Again," said Asian, "it takes an enormous faith
The children were all ears. Snowflakes drifted about them and muffled their footsteps, creating an eerie silence that accentuated the force of Aslan's words. Yet Peter was troubled. "If that is so," he inquired, "then what is 'free will'?"
commitment to believe in an absolutely closed universe and to really accept the
idea that any sequence of events is wholly foreordained-and that is
one must take as a philosophical determinist, for it would be absurd to propose
that one part of the world were arranged while another was not)10 Moreover,
such philosophical determinism has difficulty locating the ultimate
the panoply of causation. Many such hard determinists throw up their hands in
surrender to pure chance.11 Of course, this renders the universe
and meaningless-a worldview which some embrace but which I believe goes against
your experience. Of course, this raises again the problem of how
valid our thoughts
can be if our brain is but matter thrown up randomly. And if the ultimate cause
can be said to direct or order subsequent causes, is it else but God
Lucy had been disturbed by the conversation thus far, but couldn't quite put her finger on the problem. Suddenly, it dawned upon her what was so bothersome. "Aslan," she mused, "If god is so omniscient and sovereign, how can man have a free will and be held responsible for his actions? Don't the notions of predestination and free will contradict each other?"
"Daughter of Eve," smiled Aslan, "that is a very difficult question, but I think I might help you begin to understand. In the first place, God's omniscience is not determinative because it does not directly inform man's actions. Yet we are left with the problem of reconciling Cod's sovereignty with man's responsibility. You must accept the fact that God's sovereignty and man's responsibility coexist. Indeed, if you look at your holy book, the Bible, you will find this principle demonstrated throughout (Acts 2:23; Gen. 45:5)."
"But AsIan isn't that a contradiction in terms?" said Peter.
"No, Son of Adam. It is a paradox, because coexistence of the sovereignty of God and the moral responsibility of man does not equal the coexistence of no responsibility and responsibility. Again, you must realize that reality is so complex and beyond your potential for understanding that you must necessarily resort to different levels of description which may appear contradictory, in order to capture such complexity. An example of this necessity drawn from your world of science is the Complementarity Principle formulated by Niels Bohr and applied to the description of light as both particles and waves ?12 Because no one has yet succeeded in inventing a comprehensive philosophy at once credible and self -consistent,13 and because your thought is by nature limited, the acceptance of such paradoxes is not cowardly nor lazy but necessary. And you will find them throughout your Bible. But in the unflinching pursuit of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility you will find the razor edge of your belief. "14
"And yet it seems to me," said Peter, "that unless there is a flaw in your reasoning (which would be impossible), I must conclude that, from the start, God's sovereignty does not equal man-without-responsibility if we are to avoid logical contradiction and invalidation. But isn't that a problem of circular reasoning-that is, assuming what we are trying to prove? The only solution would seem to lie in the assertion that that is what the Bible presents and so it must he accepted on faith.'
"If it is the faith commitment that bothers you my son," said the great Lion, "you will feel quite uncomfortable wherever you turn in all honesty. For every philosophy demands some degree of faith commitment, and even the scientific-empirical methodology of investigation requires a faith commitment to rational an(] predictable order in the universe. But enough of this. Given our discussion so far, that just as the sovereignty of God and the moral responsibility of man coexist, so too does the soft determinism we have described and genuine-though-circumscribed free will and moral responsibility; we must conclude that, regardless of cause, man is responsible for his behavior. Now we must decide what mode of punishment is appropriate for these rebels."
"How about deterrence?" asnswered Edmund.
"Or rehabilitation . . ," said Susan.
"Or retribution ,.."added Lucy.
"And just what do you mean by deterrence," Edmund?" asked Asian.
"I mean," said Edmund, "the inhibiting effect that punishment, either actual-as in this ease-or threatened will have on the actions of those who are otherwise disposed to commit crimes. Deterrence, in turn, has two aspects: after the fact inhibition of the person being punished or special deterrence; and inhibition in advance by threat and example or general deterrence.15 Although we might not reform these rebels by punishing them after the fact, as the high rate of recidivism seems to indicate, we shall at the very least discourage further rebellion and save Narnia from further grief by making a show and example of them."
"And where is justice in all this?" asked Asian.
"What do you mean ...."
"You see, Edmund," smiled Asian, "general deterrence makes an example of offenders-that is, it makes persons means to a larger end such as the preservation of peace and order in Narnia. But that alone is not justice. Any punishment which does not treat persons as ends in themselves by punishing them according to the principle of desert is a perversion of justice, for it tramples upon the dignity of human life.16 The heartlessness and injustice of such deterrence was well expressed by one of its most vocal advocates-Oliver Wendell Holmes-who once wrote to a friend
if I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was
going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, "I don't doubt that your act was inevitable for you, but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises." I fear that the touch of sentiment that I notice in your writing will be revolted at this, but personally I feel neither doubt nor scruple17
If in the process of punishing a person according to what he or she deserves, that person is made an example or means to the end of general deterrence, fine. But treating the person as an end by determining what punishinent they deserve must come first. Without desert, the morality of punishment disappears. Moreover, if the primary aim is deterrence, it no longer matters who is punished so long as the public think that the accused is guilty.'18
"But Asian isn't that a contradiction in terms?" said Peter. "No, Son of Adam. It is a paradox."
"What about rehabilitation then?" asked Susan. "After
may be used to prevent crime by so changing the personality of the
he will conform to the dictates of lawin a word by refoming him.
reform is by compulsion and primarily for our sakes. But it seems to
me both humane
"However," said Asian, "that presupposes the definition of crime as a disease and not as a transgression. Again, there is no justice in this because there is no principle of desert, and so no morality of punishment. The responsibility for determining what punishment is deserved is taken out of the hands of jurists, who deal with categories of rights and justice, and placed in the hands of technicians-such as penologists and psychiatrists-who are concerned only with finding an effective cure for the disease.19) And this does not even take into account the failure of these technicians to locate an effective cure. If crime is regarded as a disease only, there is also the danger that those in administrative positions in government will abuse their powers by defining anything they dislike-including dissent-as disease and therefore subject to criminal punishment.20 Witness Soviet Russia and its psychological 'asylums' today. Yet another consideration is that mercy has no place in rehabilitation, for mercy is expressed in pardon and one cannot pardon a disease!21 But perhaps the greatest injustice of all lies in the element of compulsion involved in rehabilitation. To be cured against the will implies a view of man as less than reasonable and responsible, weak, and determined by his environment.22 Rehabilitation thus effects substantially the same reduction of human dignity as deterrence."
"It would seem then that retribution is the only viable form of punishment," said Lucy, "for if it is right for the wicked to be punished because they have broken the law, then the dignity of human life is maintained inasmuch as man is held responsible for his actions and receives his just deserts.23 And because retribution operates off of the idea of desert-that is, that past conduct has merited a deprivation of freedom-such deprivations are turned into punishments, and justice is supplied to punishment. "24
"And yet," said Peter, "retribution seems to me at best vengeance disguised, rendered obsolete by its subjectivity and emotionalism in the face of personal experience with the causes of crime in particular cases, and an obstruction to the evolution of techniques for social control utilizing what we now know about the forces that control-or influence-human behavior,"25
"Indeed," replied Asian, 'There is the temptation for men to engage in base vengeance, but that cannot deter us from implementing the idea of desert. Such temptations to engage in subjectivity and emotionalism must be resisted, and retribution administered with both compassion for the offender and regard for the law, above the interests of society. Man must do the best he can with the limited knowledge that he has. Mistakes are inevitable. But he cannot omit punishment on the grounds of fallibility.26 Of course we feel especially reluctant to punish those who feel humble and repentant, but the maintenance of order in society demands that we must, for such order is in accord with the will of God.27 As for your assertion that knowledge of the causes 'determining' crime inhibits our implementation or retribution, or that it stands in the way of our discovering techniques for social control, may I remind you that regardless of the causes of crime, man is responsible for his behavior. You must overcome your sentimentalism and accept the paradox of the coexistence of soft determinism and moral responsibility. Beyond this, there are some positive aspects of retribution. Retribution contains and reinforces both deterrence and rehabilitation: deterrence insofar as a belief in retribution is the deepest and most effective form of deterrent, and rehabilitation insofar as the first decisive step towards genuine reformation comes when a man acknowledges that his punishment is deserved .28 And above all, retribution witnesses to the righteousness of God, to a character of unyielding justice and incomparable love, which demands that transgressors receive their just deserts."29
"Well then," said Peter to the others, "it seems as if the question is settled. Retribution shall be the mode of punishment for these rebels," They all nodded solemnly in agreement, and for a moment their statures reflected a nobility and grace befitting the domain entrusted them. "We must now choose among a number of alternatives-fines, imprisonment, corporal or capital
Retribution contains and reinforces both deterrence and rehabilitation: deterrence insofar as a belief in retribution is the deepest and most effective form of deterrent, and rehabilitation insofar as the first decisive step towards genuine reformation comes when a person acknowledges that his punishment is deserved.
punishment-the appropriate punishment," said Peter. "Asian, what do
But turning around they saw only a curtain of black and swirling white, and four huge paw prints silently filling.
1Wenham, John The Goodness Of God, (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974), p. 66.
2Aodersoo, J. N. D. Morality, Late And Grace, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972), p. 14.
3 Ibid., p. 15.
5lbid., p. 17.
6ibid., p. 20,
7lbid., p. 21.
8lbid., p. 23.
9lhid., p. 28.
10lbid., p. 29.
11Ibid., p. 31.
12Bube, Richard H. The Human Quest, (Waco: Word, 1971), pp. 168, 176.
13Wenham, p. 185.
15Caplan, John Criminal Justice, (Mineola: Foundation Press, 1973), p. 16.
16Lewis, C. S. "The humanitarian Theory Of Punishment" in God In The Dock, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 291.
17Kaplan, p. 16.
18Lewis, p. 291.
19Ibid p. 289.
21bid., p. 294.
221bid., p. 292.
23Kaplan, p. 9.
24Wenham, p. 59.
25Kaplan, p. 11.
26Wenham, p. 67.
28Ibid., pp. 64, 65.
29 Ibid., p. 66.