Evil for Evil in Ethics, Law, and Literature
Publication: Nov 90
Argues that the persistence of retribution is best understood from a perspective of evolutionary naturalism
Despite our moral misgivings, retributive canons of justice—the return of evil to evildoers—remain entrenched in law, literature, and popular moral precept. In this wide-ranging examination of retribution, Marvin Henberg argues that the persistence and pervasiveness of this concept is best understood from a perspective of evolutionary naturalism. After tracing its origins in human biology and psychology, he shows how retribution has been treated historically in such diverse cultural expressions as law codes, scriptures, drama, poetry, philosophy, and novels. Henberg considers retributive thought in light of contemporary moral theory and current social and political concerns and advances his own theory of the morality of legal punishment.
"Retribution is no single doctrine or unified set of doctrines, but rather a sprawling variety of doctrines, many of them at odds with one another," observes Henberg. He suggests that understanding retributive thought as the quest for solace in the face of suffering helps to explain its variable nature. Since there is no single defensible moral criterion for identifying exact retaliation, culture is more important than nature in selecting among retributive practices. Typically, some forms of retribution are culturally approved, while others are disapproved. In place of the mistaken tendency to think of legal punishment as morally justified, Henberg maintains that legal punishment should be thought of as morally permitted.