Sunday, September 25, 2005

Injustice from the Hereafter

I was struck the other day about the death of the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. I was stuck not so much at the surprise that he had died (he was 96) but I wondered for a bit about how a religious belief in the afterlife matches up with pursuing criminal justice on earth.

There's a famous drasha about the story in the Torah when Joseph takes Shimon as hostage and puts him in prison for the duration of the time that it takes the rest of the brother to go back to Cana'an and bring back Benjamin. The reason why such imprisonment was justified was that since Shimon (along with Levi) had done such a wicked deed in annihilating Shechem he was due a big comeuppance by the time he got to the afterlife. The punishment in the afterlife is ten times worse than anything on Earth, so, in effect, Jospeh was doing him a favor by punishing him before then with a comparitively lighter prison stay.

Ok great, but then a question comes to mind. If punishing people during their lifetimes is a lighter sentence then they would get in the afterlife, why should we pursue justice on Earth at all? Is kindness to criminals what's on our mind when going after them? Furthermore, any human justice system must be inferior to the perfect justice system of God, so why do we even make the effort if it'll all be evened out sooner or later.

Hell, taking it one step further, I had heard it said (and have seen this as the moral of quite a few Jewish stories) that any suffering in our time on Earth is actually a positive thing since it either a) takes the place of worse punishment in the afterlife (as mentioned above) and/or b) increases or pleasure in Olam Haba through purifying us in the here and now thus meriting us for greater reward.

So why doesn't it follow from that that our regular lives ought to be as painful and uncomfortable as possible since then our reward in Heaven will be assured? Hell, torture the righteous and pamper the evil because then God's justice equations will really balance 'em out good.

And, to note, this type of thinking is not just rhetorical, but has been put into practice many times in history. Ever heard the phrase "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out?" Religious massacres of many stripes have been indiscriminate in their killings of whole towns, heretics and faithful alike, since in the afterlife all the tallies will be balanced out for each. There's no real crime in murder since the good ones are just going to Heaven, right? How could that be bad?

The moral nature of the afterlife was posited because of the theological need that a just God would have since perfect justice is not found on Earth. Since God exists and He is perfectly just, yet justice is not found on Earth, therefore there must be an afterlife where justice is served. Great. But is seems to me that it is the dream of the afterlife which can often lead to diminished justice and moral considerations in present life.

If everything is eventually evened out, one can never actually do any harm to another. Sure, a crime might hurt you in the afterlife, so you may fear reprisal, but nothing you do to others really hurts them. Stealing a person's car, beating a guy in the street, murdering a hobo, whatever, the victims are only hurt in _this_ life and they'll get it all back plus more when they reach Heaven.

The lack of an afterlife may imply the unfortunate conclusion that oftentimes people do get away with doing wrong, but it also encourages us to enforce our own system of justice as imperfect as it may be. I think it can also encourage us to be _more_ moral since when we hurt others, it is not the case that the others receive proper compensation later on. I'd much rather see a public being moral for the sake of empathetic caring and not due to the carrot and stick methodology of an unwitnessed overlord.

24 comments:

Alex said...

Your arguments and conclusions have merit. But I think some balance is called for. I can think of one way that the belief in the afterlife can encourate us to be more moral: It could help us cut down on vigilanteeism and revenge.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

Yes, I see a good point there, but even so, taking the afterlife as seriously as some say we ought to leads to some unsavory conclusions. The idea of the meritable afterlife removes the pursuit of moral justice from human hands. And not only that but it totally confuses what is "good" and "bad" in life.

alex said...

Your comments did not really add anything to what your essay said originally. I guess you’re not fond of the “balance” I wished to offer your essay.

Which society, throughout history, would you think was very into the idea of moral justice? (It surely wasn't '30s Germany.) I'd suggest Judaism, one of those peoples who strongly believed in the afterlife. So, when you say, "leads to some unsavory conclusions" you really should say "may lead to some unsavory conclusions." A key word, that "may".

alex said...

"I'd much rather see a public being moral for the sake of empathetic caring and not due to the carrot and stick methodology of an unwitnessed overlord. "

Who wouldn't? But this is to be balanced with the concept: "shelo lishma leads to lishma". (Well, sometimes it does.)

("Carrot and stick" is a crude way of saying "divine justice," but I'll get over it.)

PS. I meant to thank you for saying that my first comment had a good point.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"I guess you’re not fond of the “balance” I wished to offer your essay."

You offered a couple of valid points, but they were, imo, minor ones in comparison to what I was talking about. Do you disagree?

"Which society, throughout history, would you think was very into the idea of moral justice?...I'd suggest Judaism, one of those peoples who strongly believed in the afterlife."

Ah, but wait up there. Judaism has believed in a hereafter for a long time, but it is not focused on contemporarily and is surprisingly free of characteristic dogmas.

Furthermore, the afterlife of the Judaism of yestermillenium was the Sheol. A gray, slow, smoky realm where the souls of the dead wander about but reward and punishment need not necessarily play a role in their conditions. Read through some of the more poetic and philosophical parts of Tanach and you'll see it described in some detail.

For moral justice to be reliably pursued, the current life must be focused on and the afterlife relegated to relative unimportance. As is frequently cited, Judaism is a religion focused on life rather than on death - and in that sense, godspeed.

"So, when you say, "leads to some unsavory conclusions" you really should say "may lead to some unsavory conclusions." A key word, that "may"."

Far from a dissertation on human behavior I was just analyzing the logical consequences of such a belief. Of course it is not always the case that people take things to their logical conclusions.

alex said...

"Ah, but wait up there. Judaism has believed in a hereafter for a long time, but it is not focused on contemporarily and is surprisingly free of characteristic dogmas."

It seems like you've hit upon the solution. To focus too much on divine justice is what can be dangerous. But just to believe in it, I think works fine. Better than fine, in my opinion. (In fact, there's no evidence that in ancient eras, there was too much focus on it. Perhaps that was the purpose of Tanach going easy on the topic.)

"Religious massacres of many stripes have been indiscriminate in their killings of whole towns, heretics and faithful alike, since in the afterlife all the tallies will be balanced out for each."

Do you really think that this belief in the afterlife was the animating principle behind killing whole towns indiscriminately? I bet it was only an after-the-decision justification.

alex said...

"But is seems to me that it is the dream of the afterlife which can often lead to diminished justice and moral considerations in present life."

I see you did, after all, use the word “can”. Sorry I didn’t take that into account when I called you on forgetting the word "may" in your added comment, which I called you on. Besides, you should word it: “Can theoretically lead.” I submit that you’ll need to find some more proof that it actually DOES lead to diminished worldly justice.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Do you really think that this belief in the afterlife was the animating principle behind killing whole towns indiscriminately? I bet it was only an after-the-decision justification."

I know it - there have been historical records where this very religious view was used to justify massacres.

"Pope Innocent III ordered the Albigensian Crusade, to purge southern France of the Cathari heretics. It began in the summer of 1209, with their first target - the town of Beziers. The Catholic faithful in Beziers refused to give up the Catharis among themselves. The crusaders invaded. When Arnaud-Amaury was asked whom to kill he replied "Kill them all. God will know his own." They did. The crusaders slaughtered nearly everyone in town, over 20,000, either burned or clubbed to death. Thus they achieved their goal of killing the estimated 200 heretics who were hiding in the town among the Catholic faithful. The brutal crusade continued on for the next twenty years. Eventually the Catholics devised a new approach for dealing with the remaining Cathari heretics in France. It was called "the Inquisition"."

http://www.manbottle.com/trivia/Kill_them_all....htm_answer.htm

"I submit that you’ll need to find some more proof that it actually DOES lead to diminished worldly justice."

See above.

Alex said...

You're stating with confidence that it was a "before-the-decision" justification, while I think it was an "after-the-decision" justification. The difference is crucial.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

That's the story that's accepted as history. Take it up with the historians.

ALex said...

"Sure, a crime might hurt you in the afterlife, so you may fear reprisal,..."


For now, let's leave out Crusader-type crimes, and stick with the run of the mill theft, cheating, adultery, gossip, etc.

You dismiss this crucial phrase: "a crime might hurt you in the afterlife, so you may fear reprisal" with the word "sure", as if it is outweighed by all your arguments. On the contrary, I think that in the mind of the perpetrator, assuming that his belief in the hereafter happens to pop into the forefront of his mind at time of the "crime", your entire argument is outweighed by this one phrase.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

If your only reason for not doing something immoral is so that you won't get punished later then you have a sick view of morality which isn't actually moral at all.

That type of thinking can fairly easily be turned backwards if a person cares more about their immediate pleasure than about long-off suffering in purgatory.

And anyway, this is far from my major point of the rigorous pursuit of justice which is nowhere found in such personal consequentialist reasons for acting.

Alex said...

Your first paragraph is putting words in my mouth that I don't believe, and I think you know that.

The purpose of what I wrote is to show that a potential thief/liar/etc is going to -- IF he happens to think about divine justice at the time -- much more likely think about his own ultimate fate than the ultimate fate of his victim.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Your first paragraph is putting words in my mouth that I don't believe, and I think you know that."

By "you" I didn't mean you specifically, but a general rhetorical "you."

"The purpose of what I wrote is to show that a potential thief/liar/etc is going to -- IF he happens to think about divine justice at the time -- much more likely think about his own ultimate fate than the ultimate fate of his victim."

That's true, but that belies an obvious moral problem with the person in which the only thing holding him back is potential punishment. He isn't acting to be moral, he's acting in pure self-interest or perceived self-interest.

The afterlife produces a pseudo-morality in the minds of believers.

Alex said...

I don't think you'd object to that pseudo-morality if it were *your* car the guy was just about to break into.

This pseudo-morality, as you call it, is supposed to be a *start*, not an *end-all*.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

I don't care what goes on in the minds of people as long as they don't hurt anyone. But what I am arguing for is that such pseudo-morality is easily overturned since its basis isn't actually in being moral.

alex said...

Your first sentence didn't address my "car" scenario at all. You did not address whether this pseudo-morality could come in handy at times. (More times than we'd both like to admit.) And your second sentence is actually something I always agreed with. I'm sure you recall from Chumash class that this level of "morality" is among the very lowest in the "noble reasons" chain.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Your first sentence didn't address my "car" scenario at all. You did not address whether this pseudo-morality could come in handy at times."

I thought it answered both those things. I don't care what holds a person back from hurting me or anyone else, just as long as they stay that way. They may love to do evil and have convinced themselves that not beating me up is evil and that's fine by me.

"I'm sure you recall from Chumash class that this level of "morality" is among the very lowest in the "noble reasons" chain."

Yeah, I know that, but if a person thinks that Gehennom is what awaits him if he acts badly, how much further can he rise from that way of thinking?

alex said...

"but if a person thinks that Gehennom is what awaits him if he acts badly, how much further can he rise from that way of thinking? "

Well, the person who believes in divine justice is often the person who attends services and reads religious books -- where they learn of those other much-more- noble reasons to be good. One of those reasons is the same as yours. But, a smart agnostic like you cannot even think of the same number of reasons to be good as a smart religious fellow, for his list will subsume your list.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"But, a smart agnostic like you cannot even think of the same number of reasons to be good as a smart religious fellow, for his list will subsume your list."

I can _think_ of them, I just wouldn't hold them as meaningful answers. And I bet that when my imaginations starts rolling, I could come up with nearly endless nonsensical reasons to be moral.

"Well, the person who believes in divine justice is often the person who attends services and reads religious books -- where they learn of those other much-more- noble reasons to be good."

Maybe, though metaethics isn't very popular among Orthodoxy. Most people don't analyze philosophy seriously.

alex said...

Analyzing philosophy and metaethics is desirable, but not necessary. A few good, noble, reasons to be moral are written all over the siddur. You needn't agree with them.

Now you're going to say that most people don't really think about what they're saying when they pray...

Also, I would like for you distinguish between yiras Hashem, and yiras onesh. When you refer to the Sword of Damocles, or the "stick", I see this as yirah onesh.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

I am convinced that if you ask your average religious person why they do good the answer you get is because God says so. I know this because almost everyone I tell of my "situation" asks me if whether I feel morally constrained by anything. They don't get that morality and religiosity can be separated. They don't even seriously consider other possibilities besides divine command.

You can tell me to your heart's content about all the other people. The fringe exceptions that are more intellectual or open-minded or higher-minded. But I know you know that they are the exceptions. You are just unwilling to say so.

"Also, I would like for you distinguish between yiras Hashem, and yiras onesh. When you refer to the Sword of Damocles, or the "stick", I see this as yirah onesh."

Yes, there is a distinction. One can say that they fear God in the sense that they are afraid of doing anything that would ruin their relationship with God. Or that they fear/respect God and so are unwilling to not do as He says.

But, still, in the minds of your average monotheist and Orthodox Jew, Fear of God is directly associated with going to Hell or Gehenom.

alex said...

A new essay just came out:
http://www.aish.com/societyWork/work/The_Jewish_Ethicist__-_Ethics_Of_Life_After_Death.asp

alex said...

for those who can't see the full site name:

Ethicist__-_Ethics_Of_Life_After_Death.asp