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The Paradoxes of Punishment

A rigid approach to moral questions can have an unintended result

The two big news stories in the world today present a bizarre parallel that's worth exploring.

One story involves the gathering of United States military forces to strike Iraq. Saddam Hussein has been flouting the UN resolutions that were the terms of peace in 1991, and the US is determined - properly, I would say - that he not get away with it.

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Meanwhile, the American political system is itself embroiled in an intense presidential scandal. Investigators and their political allies are pressing forward to further expose suspected wrong-doing by President Clinton with the aim of discrediting him.

In each case we find a paradox: The effort to punish the wrong-doer may instead help him. There's a lesson here.

The ethic of punishment rests on simple-minded, mechanistic notions of how the world works. The righteous blow, it's assumed, will have righteous results. What would hurt me will likewise hurt the object of my wrath. My rightful enforcement of the rules will discredit the wrong-doer in the eyes of all who witness.

But what if it does not work that way?

When punishment rewards

In the case of Saddam, one aspect of the problem is a potential mismatch between our goals and the tool we are willing to employ to achieve them: Airpower, though relatively easy to use, is unlikely to eliminate either the weapons or the especially dangerous tyrant that constitutes the threat.

But at least we can wreak destruction on Saddam's country, and show him and others that no one can get away with defying our righteous rules with impunity - right?

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Unfortunately, Saddam has shown himself pretty thoroughly indifferent to the ruination of his country and the suffering of his people. He does not feel pain about the things that we would find hurtful, and so our punishing blow fails to punish.

Nor does the audience that matters most to him interpret this drama in the terms that seem self-evident to us. In the Arab world, evidently, it is the fact that Saddam defies us and survives - not that his defiance brings ruin to his people - that is salient. Our effort to cut him down can thus enhance his status.

We're trying to teach a lesson. But we may misread our students.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the people who have been working for five years to destroy this president are scratching their heads in befuddlement. "If only we can prove to the American people that this fellow is a philanderer and a liar," they have assumed, "we can either drive him from office or leave him so crippled that he'll be out of our way."

Now half their wish is fulfilled - most Americans believe President Clinton committed some of these wrongs. But rather than be brought low, the president has been enjoying approval ratings far beyond anything he'd seen before the investigation began.

The president who was supposed to be humiliated instead arose, after a few days of confusion, bold as brass to deliver a State of the Union message that dazzled a huge swath of the American people. He simply refused to slink away in the shame that his attackers, putting themselves in his place, assumed would overwhelm him.

And most Americans, even when forced to wade knee-deep through the kind of muck that was supposed to compel them to turn against the president, have instead rallied to support him. Stop this investigation, a majority have told pollsters. Let him get on with his job. It is the attackers, thus far at least, whose public standing is falling.

What is the meaning of this paradox? Doubtless there are many meanings, but the one that intrigues me concerns a limitation to which the "righteous" mentality is prone.

The righteous man follows the commandments. He gives unwavering allegiance to the structures of a moral system. Bill Bennettlike, he speaks of "good character," enshrining certain virtues as absolutes and holding it essential that, say, the occupant of the White House be an "I cannot tell a lie" George Washington-type rather than an "I didn't inhale" waffler, shaver, bender, and breaker of the truth.

Woodrow Wilson-like, the righteous hold aloft the banner of law as the basis for global harmony and order, and stand ready to convert that banner into a sword to protect the order against "bad characters" like Saddam.

All of which seems to me perfectly valid. The rules and structures are important, and upholding them is a noble endeavor.

Moral absolutes

But the danger comes in the rigidity that tends to accompany the penchant for moral absolutes. What makes good rules good is that they tell us what works well in human affairs - as a rule. They're generalizations, approximations, concerning how the human good is attained.

But the reality of how the world works is more complex than such simple rules capture. And so the consciousness that sees obedience to the rules as goodness itself has committed a kind of idolatry. To turn the structures that usually serve a useful purpose into the purpose itself is to confuse means and ends.

A mind excessively wedded to the structures - rather than to the ultimate purposes - of morality will likely lack the flexibility needed to notice or adjust to the abundant complexities of real, diverse cases. And this inflexibility can lead - in the righteous infliction of punishment, for example - to follies.

Just recently, the rigid allegiance to the principle of "an eye for an eye" led the state of Texas to execute a woman who was no longer, in moral reality, the same person who had committed a terrible crime years before. For what good purpose?

The case of Karla Faye Tucker is of course different in fundamental ways from the case of the pending strike against Iraq, which in turn differs profoundly from the current presidential "scandal."

But what unites them is that a rigid approach to moral questions can blind people to the complexity that the world is actually presenting. And it can lead to futile and self-defeating courses of action.

The question is often discussed whether a good end justifies using questionable means. It's also important that we ask ourselves whether our righteous means can be justified by their questionable ends.

* More of Andrew Bard Schmookler's ideas can be found at his Web site, at: www.

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