The Paradoxes of Punishment A Rigid Approach to Moral Questions Can Have an Unintended Result

Article excerpt

The two big news stories in the world today present a bizarre parallel that's worth exploring.

One story involves the gathering of United States military forces to strike Iraq. Saddam Hussein has been flouting the UN resolutions that were the terms of peace in 1991, and the US is determined - properly, I would say - that he not get away with it.

Meanwhile, the American political system is itself embroiled in an intense presidential scandal. Investigators and their political allies are pressing forward to further expose suspected wrong-doing by President Clinton with the aim of discrediting him. In each case we find a paradox: The effort to punish the wrong-doer may instead help him. There's a lesson here. The ethic of punishment rests on simple-minded, mechanistic notions of how the world works. The righteous blow, it's assumed, will have righteous results. What would hurt me will likewise hurt the object of my wrath. My rightful enforcement of the rules will discredit the wrong-doer in the eyes of all who witness. But what if it does not work that way? When punishment rewards In the case of Saddam, one aspect of the problem is a potential mismatch between our goals and the tool we are willing to employ to achieve them: Airpower, though relatively easy to use, is unlikely to eliminate either the weapons or the especially dangerous tyrant that constitutes the threat. But at least we can wreak destruction on Saddam's country, and show him and others that no one can get away with defying our righteous rules with impunity - right? Unfortunately, Saddam has shown himself pretty thoroughly indifferent to the ruination of his country and the suffering of his people. He does not feel pain about the things that we would find hurtful, and so our punishing blow fails to punish. Nor does the audience that matters most to him interpret this drama in the terms that seem self-evident to us. In the Arab world, evidently, it is the fact that Saddam defies us and survives - not that his defiance brings ruin to his people - that is salient. Our effort to cut him down can thus enhance his status. We're trying to teach a lesson. But we may misread our students. Meanwhile, in Washington, the people who have been working for five years to destroy this president are scratching their heads in befuddlement. "If only we can prove to the American people that this fellow is a philanderer and a liar," they have assumed, "we can either drive him from office or leave him so crippled that he'll be out of our way." Now half their wish is fulfilled - most Americans believe President Clinton committed some of these wrongs. But rather than be brought low, the president has been enjoying approval ratings far beyond anything he'd seen before the investigation began. The president who was supposed to be humiliated instead arose, after a few days of confusion, bold as brass to deliver a State of the Union message that dazzled a huge swath of the American people. He simply refused to slink away in the shame that his attackers, putting themselves in his place, assumed would overwhelm him. And most Americans, even when forced to wade knee-deep through the kind of muck that was supposed to compel them to turn against the president, have instead rallied to support him. …