Beyond Redemption


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I think that part of what’s makes us human is our ability to contemplate whether or not something is moral or immoral, good or bad. These things are present in other animals but not to our extent. Considering that the ability to be moral is one of the things that makes us human than it would be better to be killed by a villain than to be a villain. The villain has made a choice not to follow one of the best parts of being human.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Great post Ethan. Really. I’ve got lots to say about this topic, but I think I need a minute to collect my thoughts. So consider this a shout out. Nice work.Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Hmmmm… why do you presume it is undesirable to be the tyrant? I mean, if the question is how can one live with one’s self while being so tyrannical… well, clearly the answer is rooted in that most tyrants don’t view themselves as tyrannical. Going further, most people who do ill don’t view themselves as doing such. Or see what they are doing as justified by greater injustices. I doubt Tsarnaev sees himself as a villain or a terrorist; I presume he sees himself as some sort of freedom fighter attempting to make right of wrongs committed against he and those he is aligned with. Or at least he probably did at the time he was committing such acts.

    The question seems predicated on a particular view of humanity that I’m not sure I accept or I agree with.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      It’s not being a tyrant. It’s correcting people who deserve to be corrected, punishing people who deserve to be punished, and rewarding people who deserve to be rewarded.

      At the end of the day, I’m helping people. The people who say “you shouldn’t do that!” are saying “you shouldn’t help people.”

      And any comparisons between me and Doctor Dobson are spurious.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    There is, it seems to us
    At best, only a limited value
    In the knowledge derived from experience
    The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies
    For the pattern is new in every moment
    And every moment is a new and shocking
    Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
    Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm
    In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
    But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble
    On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold
    And menaced by monsters, fancy lights
    Risking enchantment.

    Plato makes the point repeatedly in Gorgias: there are two parts to injustice, the doing of it and the not-getting-punished part of it. Inflicting suffering on others is bad but getting away with it is the worst part. Tom Petty’s song would tell us It’s Good Being King but it’s hell when nobody dares to tell you your butt stinks. Nobody can be trusted and nobody trusts you. They’ll tell you what you want to hear when you’re in charge but they’ll poison you, given half a chance. Damocles rewarded a particularly disgusting flatterer by making him sit on his throne under a sword hung by a hair.

    Suffering comes in many forms. A beaten man may limp home and his wife will cry over him and patch him up. The guy who beat him up goes home to an empty apartment. Who’s better off? The one is loved, the other hated and alone.

    Gorgias is so brutal and obvious. Want someone to really suffer? Let him live with the consequences of what he’s done. I hope Dzokar Tsarnaev lives out the rest of his days waking up every morning, remembering running over his brother, remembering those hours in the boat. I hope he gets to see the people he’s damaged, lives he’s altered forever. I’ve had to live with a few things I did and got away with. At turns, I’ve honestly thought I’d be better off dead than having to live with those memories.

    I sincerely hope they don’t try to impose the death penalty on him though. I want him to live a long life. I want him to wake up every morning. I want him to remember.Report

  5. Avatar kylind says:

    It’s pretty easy to say you would kill yourself, if you were in that position, in a blog post. It’s far harder to actually go through with it. Most (non-depressed) people find a way to live, even if they couldn’t imagine that before.

    I’m also not sure what you’re imagining here. That you one day wake up and notice you did horrible things for some reason? Like Kazzy said, most people who do horrible things, do it for reasons that seem pretty compelling at the time.
    Maybe it’s about realizing how wrong you were, only after the fact?

    I’d also disagree with the headline “Beyond Redemption”. I don’t think anyone is really beyond redemption.
    BlaiseP said he’s against the death penalty because it is less cruel than the alternative. I’m not okay with that. It should not be about the alternative under which the offender suffers more.

    On Platos actual question on whether it’s better to suffer or inflict suffering.
    That seems to be a question that presupposes a certain worldview. A worldview in which there’s some kind of objective measure of evil. Some way in which your soul or something akin to it can get tainted. An objective judgement of who is the better human.
    But there’s nothing apart from our own personal judgement. That same judgment was already applied in the decisions that led you to inflict suffering. That means you have already decided.
    So you will probably never face such a clear decision, unless the Joker has kidnapped you and put you in that dilemma.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      The murdered will not be returned to life. The maimed and traumatised are altered forever. I’m a consequentialist, for better or worse, with all the philosophical shortcomings of that position. But consequentialism is ultimately liberating: it frees up the observer to dispassionately consider inputs and outcomes, devoid of any of the hand-wringing and agonising about anyone’s redeemability. In my profession, software, lots of things don’t do what they “ought” to do. The maddening part is knowing the software is only acting as it does — and it’s pointless getting mad about it.

      The death penalty is barbaric. It’s based on a false supposition, the pettiness of revenge. Yes, it’s true, I do want Dzokar Tsarnaev to wake up every morning in a jail cell and remember why he’s there. The poor bastards who get up and put on their artificial legs will do the same. I am told amputees suffer from phantom pain, unbearable itching and burning sensations arrive in their spinal cords and brains, processed with all the fidelity of an actual irritation or burn.

      The Buddhist monk Kukai had a ministry to prisoners, believing they were most in need of redemption. Of course, the Buddhists believe we must atone for our sins by enduring the physical world with all its sufferings, over and over. I’m not sure I hold with that sort of thinking but I do agree with them on one thing, that to exist is to suffer. We go from need to need, from getting up in the morning and needing to pee, to needing to eat a little something, needing to get a shower, needing to get to work, needing to keep the job, needing to get paid, needing to buy groceries, needing to do the laundry and the dishes and the kids need to get their homework done — needing to rest — and it all happens over and over every goddamn day of our lives.

      Perhaps Dzokar Tsarnaev will come to terms with what he’s done, must do. The amputees must do the same. Neither has much of a choice in the matter: the deed is done. Life goes on.

      Plato isn’t really saying we should protect the criminal from justice in Gorgias. That’s a dumb interpretation of Plato and yours isn’t exactly the cleverest interpretation of my point either. The point is this: crime and punishment are of a piece. We arm the agents of the law, delegate powers to them, give rights to the accused, give them due process, — lest we pervert the course of justice. We cannot be ruled by the mob or our own sense of vigilante justice. We must be ruled by law. When a prisoner serves his time, society says “he’s served his time.” And it is service. We can only hope and expect the released prisoner to enjoy his freedom and turn a new page and live out the rest of his life and never serve another day in prison. We hope he’s learned his lesson, but that lesson isn’t that crime doesn’t pay. Crime pays, all right. But crime has consequences and if the law catches up to him, it will make the criminal pay.

      So which is the bigger injustice, that a tyrant beats a man, or that the tyrant gets away with it because he’s beyond the law and its agents? I’d say the latter.

      Epitaph on a Tyrant

      by W. H. Auden

      Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
      And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
      He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
      And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
      When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
      And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Just to be clear, I don’t equate “beyond redemption” to “should be executed.”

      The beyond redemption part is an assertion that he can never make up for what he did, or set things “right” again, or ever be more than a bad person.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    While it is a great place to start, thinking about it as bomber versus the bombed, there are other, less kinetic, examples…

    Is it better to be the slave owner than the slave? (Let’s go to the 1800’s to avoid discussions of “well, in Greek society…”) Is it better to hold the whip than to be whipped?

    You can continue to turn down the dial and ask “is it better to be white in the 1950’s than black?” Turn it down a little more and ask about the 90’s. The oughts. The teens. Ask about sexuality. Ask about gender. Ask about “privilege”.

    We know who Jesus said were “blessed”. We know who he said would be last and who would be first… but… well, he was wrong about a lot of things.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Jaybird, I think there’s something in just looking at the relative situations, vs. the direct cause of harm.

      In any case, what I think you’re examples demonstrate is just how much of this may be motivated by social norms. Which is important to the issue as addressed in the dialogues.

      If you could get away with being evil, that is, no one actually thought you were evil, or had done something evil.

      How much of this is a feeling of shame on my part, than a moral sensitivity?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I find that I also can’t help but think of Nietzsche and the whole Master/Slave Morality distinctions he noticed.

        Cats discuss how virtue consists of sharp claws. Rabbits discuss how virtue consists of speed.Report

  7. First, just a wee housekeeping note. It’s a small thing, but might I politely suggest that you add a little warning to the link with the picture letting people know how graphic it is?

    The only answer I can really come up with isn’t really which one is “better.” “Better” to me implies a degree of goodness, and so comparing two situations that are utterly terrible in terms of goodness isn’t a question that lends itself to a coherent answer for me.

    The best I can say is, horrible as it may be, I can at least imagine what it would be like to live a life so traumatically altered. I can imagine being mourned if I had been one of those who lost their lives. I simply cannot imagine being a person who plants a bomb to kill or maim innocent people. One is at least conceivable to me, and the other is utterly not.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      “I simply cannot imagine being a person who plants a bomb to kill or maim innocent people.”

      Yet you doom hundreds of children to autism every year with your spurious vaccines!

      All kidding aside… imagine it DID come to bear that vaccines DID cause autism and that they never should have been given. While I’m sure you’d feel regret at the risk you exposed children to, I’m also sure you would recognize that you were genuinely doing what you sincerely believed to be right.

      Maybe I’m crazy, but I really tend to believe that it is rare the person who says, “I know what I’m about to do is objectively wrong and should not be done, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I think most people who do ill are thinking something between, “This is the right thing to do because it achieves noble ends,” and, “This is an ugly thing but I have to do it in pursuit of noble ends.” I mean, coming full circle to vaccinations, if the question is, “Is it right to poke small children with sharp objects until they cry?” we’d all say that’s a pretty crazy thing to do. If the question is, “Is it right to vaccinate children?” most of us would think it is a very sane thing to do, if not a moral requirement.

      Most of us look at Tsarnaev and think, “How could he blow up innocent civilians… innocent children?” But I’m sure there are some people out there who are thinking, “How did he summon up the courage to walk into the heart of one of the Great Satan’s founding cities and wage a counterattack?” And to the person who not long ago watched a bomb with “Made in USA” written on the side fall on his house and blow up his children, that might seem like a very sane thing to do, if not a moral requirement.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Done. I thought it would link back to the page it was housed on that had a warning over the image and wouldn’t reveal it till you clicked again.

      Didn’t realize it just blows up the browser with graphic horror.Report