Monday, April 23, 2012

The Problem With Just Deserts

I had to write an essay for one of my classes in response to James Rachels' writing Punishment and Desert. My response earned me my first 4.0 on an essay so far this semester. It's not very long, hopefully it is interesting. Here it is.


Rachels asserts that “People deserve to be treated in the same way that they (have) voluntarily treated others. Those who have treated others well deserve to be treated well in return, while those who have treated others badly deserve to be treated badly in return.” The statement seems logical and acceptable, but there are a few problems with that philosophy.

Some people have made decisions that they later regret. They may have done it voluntarily in the heat of the moment. According to Rachel, since this man willingly took someone’s life, he should have his life taken away from him. A problem with that is that killing another person doesn’t bring the first person back. In fact, killing the murderer could actually cause more harm than good, some people that were previously murderers have turned their lives around and become important figures in their communities, helping their community and being a useful role model. A lady known as Momma used to be a heroin addict and killed someone. When she eventually got out of jail, she was treated kindly by an outreach mission and was able to greatly improve her life. She broke her addiction and became a counselor that helped other people struggling with drug addiction to recover. If she had been given her “just deserts” she wouldn’t have been able to make the positive impact on the community she ended up in.

Some people just need some positive attention in order to change how they are acting. Some people were raised with a different set of ethics, stealing to support their family for example. If someone has always been used to stealing to be able to feed their family, they will do it often. Some times all that is needed to help repair their broken moral views is a kind patient hand. Robbing the person back isn’t going to be helpful in changing the thief’s mind. Even though the thief deserves to be stolen from according to Rachel, if anything, that would encourage him to steal more stuff to make up for the goods taken from him. Instead, extending grace towards the thief is a better idea. In Le Miserables, there is a scene where the main character is staying at a priest’s house. In the middle of the night, the lead role decides to loot the house and leave. Whilst filling his bag with stolen goods, the thief sees the priest looking at him. He knocks the priest out and flees. He is eventually caught, but when confronted by the police and brought before the priest, the clergyman doesn’t scream at the thief and demand that he receives punishment, instead he forgives the thief and treats him with kindness. Through out the rest of the story, the main character continues to be effected by that act of kindness. People tend to be self centered. They are mostly interested in self-survival. There is usually a motive behind most acts considered to be “nice” or “helpful.” People also like to lie and manipulate facts, even if it is a small addition or omission, it is still being untruthful. If everyone truly got what they deserved, the human race would be in trouble. Even if someone seems pleasant on the outside, they probably struggle with anguish in their mind. Judging, aggressiveness and jealousy are emotions felt by almost everyone. Some people lust after other’s possessions, others silently criticize or insult other individuals around them. They may look cheery on the outside but almost everyone has a darker unspoken side.

Isaiah 64:6 says “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.” As a Christian, I believe that people are generally selfish, lying beings that naturally think about themselves more than others. None of us are perfect or even close to being good. No matter how much we lie to ourselves, if we inspect our lives, tons of issues will appear. Since we all are generally evil, we all deserved to be treated evilly. Since treating everyone else evilly wouldn’t be productive, I think grace is an important alternative to just deserts. Everyone makes mistakes and acts badly, we should be willing to forgive each other. Holding a grudge will not help resolve any problems. This isn’t to say that good people shouldn’t be treated good, but I fear that there are no purely good people. We all have our vices and without grace we would be screwed.

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