This is the latest in the Forward Thinking series, a values development project organized by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Previous topics include civic responsibility, collective mourning, and sexual values. This week, Dan asks:
How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?
I’m limiting my response to non-criminal moral transgressions in adult interpersonal relationships, although I suppose much of this does still apply if someone you know commits a crime.
I am disinclined to frame this topic in terms of punishment or moral enforcement. Rather, I would discuss the response to a transgression in terms of the safety and well-being of the transgressed. There are two basic options to achieve this, although they certainly aren’t mutually exclusive:
1. The transgressed can withdraw from the transgressor, at least for a period of time.
2. The transgressed can (non-violently) confront the transgressor, in order to assert themselves and seek resolution, if that’s what they wish.
I don’t consider either of these options to be focused on punishment, but rather on the injured party establishing appropriate boundaries. I suppose it is a form of moral enforcement to say, “What you did was wrong, and it hurt me,” but I think the goal is to place value on the welfare of the person who has been hurt, and to hold the hurtful person to account for their actions. But the idea of punishment for it’s own sake, because of an “eye for an eye” mentality, makes me deeply uncomfortable.
In general I would argue for mediation that occurs at a pace led by the person who was hurt, but I recognize that it is sometimes more beneficial to simply cut ties. I also don’t think the injured party has an obligation to forgive. If it’s important to them to do so, that’s fine, but the idea of forgiveness is sometimes used to manipulate people who have been hurt. Sometimes, even framing someone’s response to injury in terms of punishment is an attempt at manipulation. In response to the accusation, “Why are you punishing me? You’re so unforgiving,” someone can say, “You hurt me and I’m not willing to talk to you right now, for my own well-being.” While I don’t think the perpetrator should be allowed to go without scrutiny, I think it’s better to keep the focus on the welfare of the person who was affected. It prevents the transgressor from rounding up support, and without social support for their actions, they may actually change their behavior.
In some cases, particularly in professional relationships, it may also be highly beneficial to involve a third party. A moral failing in the workplace may actually be a firable offense, depending on the particular circumstances. If someone isn’t contributing to a safe or ethical work environment, firing them is an act of self-protection as much as it is a punishment.
You can’t fire someone from your family, but you can opt not to see them–or at least you can if you’re an independent adult. In the case of a partner you can separate or divorce, although that’s easier said than done. If a friendship is no longer supportive, you can end it, painful as it may be to do so.
I’m not sure how we can punish transgressions by strangers, other than by telling them off on the spot, although I would never recommend saying something if you think it would put you in danger. If you’re witnessing an actual crime, call the police.
Well, I guess that’s all I have to say about that, at least for now.
Update: Dan has posted the roundup of responses.