Morality-Punishment Link

Morality and punishment share an interesting relationship. Society seeks to punish immoral acts. But I also thought of how a relationship between the two applies in the opposite direction.

Take AIDs as an example. It carries its own punishment or rather it is the punishment. The moral crime that is supposedly being punished is sexual promiscuity. AIDs has a stigma. To be infected proves you are guilty, within a particular worldview. However, in reality, not everyone gets AIDs from sexual promiscuity and not everyone who gets infected becomes sick. If a simple prevention or cure for AIDs were discovered, the morality-punishment link would be broken.

There are many other STDs that don’t capture the moral imagination. The reason they don’t is because they are easily cured if caught early enough. There is less consequence and so they seem less attractive to moralizing. How can you know something is morally wrong without a moral punishment that follows from it? This is the same basic reason social conservatives oppose abortion, not to save lives as it doesn’t (banning abortions, if anything, increases the abortion rate; they just become illegal and unsafe) but to enforce pregnancy as punishment for sexual sin.

This works for other kinds of issues as well. The reason why a certain type of person sees the poor as moral failures is because poverty is seen as a punishment in the ‘natural’ scheme of things. Any negative consequence is easily transformed into a moral punishment. This type of thinking particular captures the religious mind; after all, if not God or the Devil, who else causes people to suffer or not? The Invisible Hand of the ‘Free Market’ is just another supernatural being doling out moral punishment and reward, an economic Santa Claus who keeps a list.

This points to what is so interesting about the world of Star Trek: Next Generation. Most major problems have been solved, especially poverty and hunger and probably STDs as well, although the latter doesn’t seem to come up in the show. That future utopia has almost permanently broken the morality-punishment link. There is no negative consequence for being lazy or for being perceived as lazy by others. The conservative moral imagination is severely weakened in that world.

Liberals do seek to break this link in many ways. Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.

22 thoughts on “Morality-Punishment Link

  1. “The Invisible Hand of the ‘Free Market’ is just another supernatural being doling out moral punishment and reward, an economic Santa Claus who keeps a list.”

    I enjoy the way you distill complex issues down to common language. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks! This post never received much attention when I posted it. No comments at the time and only one like. But it has always stuck in my mind. This is one of the insights that goes to the heart of our society. I’d say it speaks to human nature in general, although especially human nature as understood in the context of meritocratic rationalizations. It is a simple post for a simple insight.

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