This is going to be one of those very philosophical posts so fasten your seatbelt.
It is this idea of a fundamentally sinful humanity that inspires the harsh, punitive sentences of our criminal justice system — including capital punishment. It also provokes visions of merciless suffering in hell after death. We deserve severe punishment because we are free agents who knowingly choose to do what we ourselves know to be wrong.
On the far side of a chasm stands a very different idea of humanity — one elaborated by Socrates and other characters in several Platonic dialogues. It holds that virtue is knowledge and vice is ignorance.
Plato’s dialogues may have presented the fullest and most radical exploration of this view, but versions of it animated various strands of Enlightenment thought, and to this day it continues to influence the way many liberals and progressives approach questions of criminal justice and related areas of public policy.
When someone commits a crime, do your instincts tell you to blame the perpetrator’s upbringing, background, education? Do you think that the best form of punishment would involve rehabilitation? Then you are, at bottom, a Platonist who rejects the idea of sinful depravity.
On the other hand, do you tend to blame the perpetrator’s actions on a malicious will and presume that, however worthwhile an education might be, it will never eliminate the possibility of evil, because evil is chosen despite knowing what is good and right? And do you therefore think that the best form of punishment is one that imposes suffering for the sake of retribution and deterrence, hopefully to help scare this and other potential criminals away from making similarly bad choices? Then you are, at bottom, a Pauline believer in the reality of sin.
This either/or way of presenting the two views is overly simplistic. Plato was well aware that teaching virtue can be a challenge (and may often be impossible), just as believers in sin typically think that moral education is extremely important in shaping and strengthening a person’s conscience.
Still, the distinction is real and important — and its implications touch on areas of our cultural life far beyond criminal justice. It helps to explain, for example, the very different ways that Platonic liberals and Pauline conservatives approach sex — with the former willing to trust in the power of rational sex education to help shape behavior, and the latter much more concerned about their children succumbing to sinful temptation no matter how many rational arguments they’re exposed to.
What’s clear is that, if you’re interested in exploring our cultural conflicts at the highest levels, you could do worse than pondering Plato and Paul.
The quote in red is just what I am going to attempt to do in tomorrow’s post.