Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness

Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness

Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness

Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness

Excerpt

Punishment and forgiveness seem essential to the human condition. It would be difficult to find any human society in which some form of punishment is not employed to discipline its members and some form of forgiveness or pardon is not allowed for those who have broken its rules. But if these two rudimentary actions are ubiquitous, they are certainly not uniform, varying not only through history, but from one religion, nation, or community to another.

It is important to make some elementary distinctions about what we mean by punishment and forgiveness. In Punishment and Desert, for example, John Kleinig writes that '"Punishment' . . . properly applies only to those legal sanctions in which the offender is exposed to moral condemnation; otherwise he is more appropriately spoken of as being penalized." A rule-breaker may be a good man, but he can be penalized for breaking the rule, even if the rule itself is considered by many as immoral. Punishment thus has more than a simple disciplining function, for it also seeks to instruct and acculturate its object. Moreover, punishment is generally connected directly to a specific order of offense, and this connection often evokes an attempt to determine the level of desert the offender has accumulated. In a sense, the violator acquires a debt to his community that he must redeem through physical pain, deprivation, or other forms of hurt. Unlike entitlement and liability, which are associated with institutions and contracts, desert is specifically allied with a willing agent. "Desert claims," says Kleinig, "rely on the valuation of characteristics possessed or things done by the subject," and these valuations are often relative and slippery (61). They can never be precise. If a wrongdoer is assumed to be a free and willing agent, punishment, too, assumes such freedom. Again, Kleinig writes that "only those conditions specifying that punishment is an activity of some responsible agent or agency, whereby it deliberately acts to impose on a moral agent because it believes that agent to have committed some wrong, can be said to be conceptually necessary to a significant, nonmetaphorical use of the word" (42). In his important book Punishment and Responsibility, H. L. A. Hart deals with the complicated nature of legal judgment under the doctrine of mens rea, which is allied to the notion of free will insofar as it takes into consideration the state of mind of the person accused of a crime.

Punishment is a morally charged term, but it is here necessary to make an . . .

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