Home > Politics and Society > On Morality and Punishment

On Morality and Punishment

One of the great things about reading things on the internet is how much time you can effectively pass away from the string of reading material. xkcd puts it best with one of their strips, “The Problem With Wikipedia“. In any case, I found myself reading Wikipedia’s article on the honor system (if you must know, the sequence went “5 Screw-Ups on the Battlefield That Accidentally Won the War” on Cracked, “5 Battlefield Screw Ups That Were Hilarious (Until People Died)” also on Cracked, the Wikipedia article on Lew Wallace, the Wikipedia article on the Confederate States of America, the Wikipedia article on Robert E. Lee, and finally the Wikipedia article on the honor system).

The honor system, for those who have never heard of it, is effectively a system where people are obligated to do certain things without active supervision or mechanics that would ensure the behavior. For example, many public transportation systems in Europe do not actively check if you’ve bought a ticket, nor do they have turnstiles to prevent people who haven’t bought a ticket from entering; there will be random inspections every now and then, but the idea is that you’re trusted by your honor to do the right thing and purchase tickets without someone or something looking over your shoulder. Same for certain bars; cocktails may be left at the bar while the bartender is away, and anyone can pick them up, but they’re expected – without being watched – to be honest add that to their tab.

In that Wikipedia article, there’s a section titled “Criticism of the concept”, which includes the following line:

Honor systems are often criticized for promoting laziness and bad behavior. Some have suggested it is paradoxical to ask people to obey a law if there is no readily apparent agent of enforcement.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a realist (or, really, to an optimist, a pessimist, or however else you want to phrase it), and I recognize that laws exist because a lot of people would be jerks otherwise. On the other hand, this is an argument I disagree with, an argument that is used by many religious debaters all the time, and – quite frankly – one that I hate with a vengeance.

According to many religious persons, the presence of divine law is a necessity to ensure human existence and prosperity. Aside from the concept of theological moral absolutism – the idea that a god says something is right or wrong, and therefore there can be no question about it – they also stand by the notion that divine law must exist because, without it, people will commit all sorts of atrocities with no fear of punishment, reprisal, or hell. “If there is no hell, what stops me from robbing a bank or killing a man?” the theologian argues.

This is, quite frankly, one of the reasons why I consider anyone who uses such an argument to either be either highly amoral or highly immoral, or at least highly morally-skewed. What they think they’re telling me is “God is the only reason why we’re good and why humanity hasn’t fallen apart into horrible, horrible murdering meatsacks”, but what they’re really telling me is “I want to murder Suzie over there, but if I do, I’ll go to hell, so I won’t”. The idea that people only retain goodness because of the threat of punishment are – whether they realize it or not – basically forswearing their morality. They aren’t responding out of goodness of their hearts; they’re responding out of fear.

I – and many others I know – don’t pillage and murder because of these things we call “empathy” and “common good”. Because even if I can reasonably get away with it, murdering Suzie weighs on my conscience. Because I know there’s no good reason for taking away Suzie’s life (assuming, of course, that she’s an entirely innocent human being, and this is not manslaughter committed out of self-defense or anything like that). Because I recognize Suzie’s right to life. Because watching her react in fear and desperation and hopelessness makes me feel like an utter jerk. It’s not because I fear I will be locked away in prison, or because I may receive the death sentence, or even that I may go to hell. It’s because I have a conscience. Because I believe in morality. Not because some god said so.

So please, please, please don’t ask me “if there’s no hell, what’s stopping me from murdering”, because what you’re telling me is that you have no heart, no empathy, no conscience, no morality. That you’re a sociopath who concerned more with being locked away or burning for eternity and not Suzie’s right to life or well-being. We do things because we think they’re good – even if we cannot agree on what “good” is – not because we actively fear punishment.

But, backtracking, a disclaimer: I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe this is an universal example. I do not have enough faith in humanity as a whole to “do the right thing” (for a certain definition of “right”) if there were no laws. I recognize that law, hell, and punishment are effective deterrents for a lot of psychopaths and sociopaths who do exist in the world (and not an effective deterrent at all for the really bad psychopaths and sociopaths who undoubtedly exist as well). Heck; I’ve broken certain rules before when I believe I can get away with them, such as crossing an alley with a red light when there are no cars or traffic cops present. The law is a fundamental cornerstone of society; there’s no question about that. Also, as an agnostic, I do not believe we can prove or disprove the existence of the divine, and therefore cannot prove whether or not divine law exists (and, frankly, I do not feel it concerns me, at least not until proof of its objective existence shows up). So although I am a moral relativist, I am not saying that your gods don’t exist, and that their laws are not true.

My beliefs, however, is that until such is proven, it is best for us to decide what we want for our own morality, to develop our own moral code. And it is my strong belief that any man who insinuates that all of humanity will be lying, stealing, murdering psychopaths the moment the threat of hell fades away is himself a morally-bankrupt individual who admits s/he is incapable of good without being under the threat of a metaphorical whip. Sure, most of us have probably ran a red light or drank underage or anything else against the rules, but many of us probably haven’t done anything horrifically out-of-bounds. Humans are capable of recognizing goodness without the constant prodding of the divine. And a good number of us will follow what we recognize. Isn’t it more beautiful to think that we can get away with jerkass behavior, but choose not to because it’s not right?

So be empathetic. Be moral. Believe that, deep down inside of you, without ever having to worry about punishment or hell, you’re capable of making the right choices.

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Categories: Politics and Society
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