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Friday, July 17, 2009

On retribution: how bad people lose (pt 2)

Jules Winnfield explains his struggle to be
a better person (the shepherd) while resisting
the urge to be "the tyranny of evil men"
  in Pulp Fiction. (c) Miramax Films.
In part 1, we talked about the human desire for retribution. But it is important to take a look at the many ways that bad do people suffer...

I will outline four types of suffering. The first few of these will be obvious, and you will be thinking to yourself, "but this doesn't always happen to all bad people!" That's ok. As I proceed, the ways in which bad people suffer will become more profound and subtle.

(1) Direct Reaction

The first and most obvious way that bad people tend to suffer is in the direct reactions others have to their most serious offenses. This takes the form of legal action, both criminal and civil. Surely, people sometimes get away with crimes. But on the whole, a life of crime is harsh and not a good path to happiness. You are very likely over time to be caught, and often being caught comes as a relief to living a life in fear of being caught. Punishments can include loss of property, wealth, liberty, and even life. It would be hard to argue that a life of crime is wise in any sense.

(2) Social Reactions

Of course, most of us aren't career criminals. Our misdeeds veer more toward lying, gossip, meanness, cowardice, betrayal, and so on. Bad people of this sort are likely to find (highly likely if they do this habitually) that their friendships will be sparse, and shallow where they do exist. We all live and swim in this 'soup' of human interactions, and it is impossible to live at odds with the nature of human beings and human social expectations, and have good relations with others. This loss of good relations can cost us in terms of material well-being (less people to look out for us and to trust), and it can also cost us emotionally. Humans have a need to be loved, to have deep relationships with family, friends, and others, and so on. Note that this doesn't require that others have vengeance or retribution in their hearts, so no circular reasoning exists here. It only requires that they will tend to notice misdeeds and be cautious about forming deep or trusting relationships with people who behave badly.

(3) Personal Psychological Impact

All of this (and most philosophy in general) apply to "normally operating human beings". That is, people who do not have some extreme psychotic malady or disorder, such as rampaging murderous lunatics and so on. Any normal human being, even those who may lead very bad lives and have suppressed senses of empathy and heightened senses of violence and greed, has some sense of empathy and self identification. In examining the lives of bad people, one will find that many of them have a sense of self hatred, conscious of it or not. This plays itself out sometimes in obvious ways, as in knowingly self destructive behavior. Other times it plays itself out in more subtle ways such as a lack of ambition, or more subtle self destructive behaviors. You'll notice them quite often in bitter feuds, back-stabbing relationships, and other situations worthy of a daytime talk show. In any case, these are certainly not happy people.

This happens because all human beings, good and bad, like goodness. They admire it in others and they see its lack or opposite in themselves. They can't help but lose self respect, be ashamed, and hate themselves - even though most would never admit it. In fact, the reason many go further into misdeeds is because they see themselves as unworthy to be redeemed. This is one area where Christianity gets it just right - and one reason for its appeal: everyone has the capacity to change. It is often the willingness of the good Christian to show love to those who have done wrong that shocks the wrong doer and convinces them that they do have worth after all, which is a beginning to their turning of a new leaf.

(4) Unfulfilled Potential

But direct reaction, social reactions, and psychological impact is not enough. Nearly everyone is aware of the first two, and to varying degrees the third. Yet, knowing these, you will no doubt wonder about the person who has no remorse. What about the person who lives an evil life, happens to get away with it, and laughs all the way to his grave? This fourth way in which bad people suffer is perhaps the most subtle, and yet very important to understand. It is my central point, and one of the main reasons I wrote this article.

Can a person be harmed without their knowledge? Suppose you have a stack of goods ready to go to market, and I steal some when you aren't looking. Then you go to market, you are told their value and paid for them. Now you have less than you would have, but never realize you were stolen from. Most people would agree that the person was still harmed. If I am a pregnant woman who does drugs, and the baby is born - not mentally disabled technically - but less intelligent than he would have been, have I harmed the baby even if he never finds out? Again, most people would agree you can be harmed even when you are unaware of it.*

Now consider the good life; the life of the good person lived in full agreement with his nature as a moral being. He will tend to enjoy the deep meaningful friendships and other material benefits of which I spoke, but even this is just a side effect. This person has the sense of self respect and contentment that will carry him throughout life, regardless of his circumstances or challenges. He will die with no regrets, having lived a life of contentment and peace. The bad person who dies in what he believes to be happiness, has fallen far from this mark. His "happiness" is mere pleasure. It has been a response to external things and cannot equate to the happiness that is unattached to such things, nor can it come close to that level. The bad person has harmed himself without even realizing it. He will die in a very different universe than the good person. For him, the world was a harsher place with much less to offer, and he is a poorer man for it. In a way, this unfulfilled potential is the saddest form of harm, because it offers no respite, no way for improvement, and no joy even to be imagined through other people's eyes. Truly, a wasted life.

The above are understandings about how bad people suffer that a lot of worldview perspectives in ancient philosophy have highlighted. But apart from this, we also need to appreciate what makes a person bad. Heraclitus spoke of nature and everything in it as a vast system of interrelated parts. Buddha spoke of a person as being a collection of aggregates and a part of the interdependent net of cause and effect. All things are in flux and and based on prior conditions. I'll refrain from talk of 'free will' and determinism for now - suffice it to say that different takes on this are compatible with these truths.

That being the case, even when we consider that human beings have a will, we must understand that their character is shaped by their experiences. I can choose between option A and option B. What I cannot choose is the perception I have of the benefits of option A versus option B. This understanding of the nature of options A and B has come about in my mind because of my prior experiences. Naturally, I will select the option that seems most beneficial to me; to do otherwise would be insanity. The difficulty then is in knowing which options are truly beneficial and which truly harmful. This is why Socrates said that the only true evil is ignorance.

We now have good reason to pity the bad person, and we have reason to see that, even with a will that is free, the kind of person he became and the lens through which he makes these free choices is not entirely the product of his will. We are neither victims of circumstance, nor are we completely sovereign islands.

Why have I written all this about bad people? It is important to know the many ways that bad people suffer in life - not so that we may gloat, but as a cautionary note to ourselves. We also see that no one really 'gets away' with anything. The world works in such a way that their behaviors yield their own fruits. We only begin to think otherwise to the degree to which we share their ignorance, and that is a sign we are limiting our own potential happiness.

Beyond sensible precautions, good choices on who to interact with, and a decent justice system, there is nothing more that we need to do - no special viciousness or extra retribution we need to apply - to make sure others 'get what's coming to them'. That leaves us free to be more compassionate, free of the burden of viciousness, and free to focus on our own improvement.

Which brings up my final point. Who is this "bad person"?

I am.

We are all bad people, for we all fall short of perfection. We are all bad in our own ways, and do bad nearly every day in some way. These ways that bad people suffer do not just apply to the extreme stereotypes, they apply to all of us. We are all harmed when we are bad, and helped when we are good in all of these ways. The good news is that we all have the potential for improvement, and when we do, we see the fruits thereof. Heaven or hell is made here, but it is not binary - it is an incremental state and we move along that spectrum as we work on ourselves day by day.

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