Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Crime and Punishment

A question arose recently regarding how a Stoic would react to the death of a loved one at the hands of another. There are several layers here, and deep topics: freewill vs. determinism, responsibility, grief, God, Fate, and more. I will address, albeit briefly, the initial question with regards to the death of a loved one, the accompanying grief, and the responsibility of those who may have brought it about.

First, as a Stoic, the death of my wife, myself, or my children, has been a topic of conversation around our family dinner table. One of the key principles in play here is a true understanding of human nature. People die. At all ages, and under various circumstances, we all die. To ignore the possibility, to gloss over it, to avoid talking and preparing for it, is irrational and worse (if possible) a disservice to those who remain. So we have discussed our preparations, from our will to our funerals. We have even discussed how far we would go to save one another's life (my children absolutely forbid me to do something Vicious, in the Stoic sense, to save them.) Nothing is left unsaid, moments are rarely wasted, slights are easily and quickly forgiven. We express concern and care for each other, and gather together regularly as an extended family to keep the bonds strong. Pamela and I have regular date nights, reminders to focus our limited time together on each other. The acknowledgement of the frailty of life gives it a depth, a richness and an immediacy to our relationships that we see lacking in many other families.

The second topic is grief. Much has been said about the Stoic attitude towards natural grief, but here I think Seneca is the key. Grief, short, sharp and painful, is part of human nature. We are NOT individuals, detached from each other. Stoicism teaches engagement, involvement and concern (wrapped up in the complex principle of Oikeiosis). One would no more expect a person to avoid mental pain due to the loss of a loved one, than to expect them to disavow physical pain due to a severed limb. We are interconnected. Pain is proof of that connection. Excessive grief however, usually seen as railing against the heavens, cries of "It isn't fair!" and "If only..." are beyond the natural bounds of grief. I can attest to the true extent of the pain of grief in my life from the deaths of my father, father-in-law and mother-in-law. It is real, but it passes quickly, leaving behind a trail of memories and a sense of emptiness that is filled, over time, with a fondness and a desire to echo the best that was in them.

A local example might serve. A few years ago, a young girl was killed riding her bike a few kilometers from our home. She was struck by a drunk driver in an entirely preventable set of circumstances. If but one of the people involved in the long chain of events that led to the tragedy had acted, the situation would have never happened. But they did not, and it did. Cries immediately went up for the 'lynching' of the man responsible, a serial drunk driver. Representatives of various organizations rallied round to lift this young girl as an example of the horrific results of drinking and driving. The father, however, refused. Though grief stricken, he publicly called for the authorities to work with the man for rehabilitation and reminded those who did not act of their own culpability. He also refused to allow his daughter to become the face of a campaign, stating to the press that he wanted her memory to be defined by the way she had lived her life, and not be the accident of her death. Though I do not know him, he serves as a model to me of rational grief which leaves room for justice, moderation and even compassion.

Finally, on the responsibility of the murderers. Though all of us are fated to die (at some point) this does not absolve the perpetrators of the guilt of the act. There is a story told of Zeno, when teaching the concept of the fate of things, was approached by a student who said that if he stole the master's lamp, it was fate and he should not be held responsible. Zeno replied that if it was fate that caused him to steal the lamp, fate would equally lead to Zeno beating said student for the theft. The point, of course, is that it is natural for us to hold others responsible for the their choices. Let us agree that free will, agency, plays a part in our actions. The 'how' of it is beyond our scope right now, but since we hold people responsible for their choice, let's just say that they are, at least in part. The choice of the murderer to take a life for personal gain of some kind is either a flaw in judgement (incorrectly valuing true 'goods') or a flaw in physiology (incorrect chemical balance leading to violence). This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but it will serve. Should the perpetrator be held responsible? Of course. But what should our response be? If we contain our grief to natural bounds, we won't seek vengeance, an eye for an eye. We will definitely restrain, and if possible incarcerate the perpetrator with an aim to rehabilitation or, at very least, the prevention of repeated acts of violence. Now this is a nuanced discussion, which opens up deep questions of punitive 'justice' and our respective correctional systems. Nevertheless, the statement that inaction masked as 'indifference' (an incorrect use of the term, by the way) on the part of those of us that are affected by violence is the only Stoic response is clearly false. We must act, with as clear a mind as we are capable of. A hard call when one is dealing with grief.

To sum, life is finite, our connections to each other will be severed. Grief will have its day. As the psalmist says "Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning." Through it all, we maintain our virtue, striving to act as excellent humans, even when those around us fall short, and bring tragedy to our door. That is the true test of our philosophy.