C. S. Lewis, one of my greatest influences, opined that we don’t burn witches because we don’t believe they exist or that they can harm others. If we did think that people were casting efficacious spells of black magic to harm others, surely we would punish them.
In other words, we have a difference of opinion of fact with those who burnt witches; we have not really made a moral advance as compared to them.
We don’t stone adultresses, either (did any society ever stone adulterers, even if it was prescribed in their law?).
Why not? I mean it. It’s really not self-evident.
Is it a moral advance (e.g., “it’s barbaric to execute someone for a minor offense”) or a difference of factual opinion (e.g., “sexual freedom is everyone’s right, and there’s nothing wrong with ‘adultery,’ if you must give pleasure an invidious name”)?
In favor of the latter option, I would ask judicial notice that we have abolished grounds for divorce, and the adulterer or adulteress who breaks a marriage suffers no sanctioned consequences for it (perhaps judges slip some sanction in under cover of discretionary property divisions and custody decisions).
In favor of the former, I would point out that movies have shifted over the decades from very soft on adultery (“they have the right to be happy with their true soul-mate” kind of drek) to pretty harsh (Fatal Attraction) — while going very squishy on fornication. (HT Frederica Matthewes-Greene podcasts for this insight.)
The New York Times today, while cashing in on the topic by making the crime “sex” rather than “adultery,” makes at least a gesture in trying to explain why some cultures still sanction, or experience traditional but officially unsanctioned, stoning for adulteresses, elopers, defiers of arranged marriages, etc.
My point? Let’s not be smug. We’re still ferociously, notoriously punitive about things we think are really wrong. If we don’t punish adultery, I suspect it’s because we’ve forgotten that sex is significant.
We have more people in prison than almost any other “advanced” nation. We reportedly have more people in prison than engaged in farming.
The TV-18 news ritual includes victims’ families wishing aloud that the perpetrator be hung by the testicles until dead and then burn in hell eternally (this barely exaggerates). A lawyer of my close acquaintance will submit a brief to the Court of Appeals tomorrow arguing, among other things, that the trial judge erred in explicitly finding the victim’s request for a harsh sentence a legitimate sentence-enhancer (a clear, “slam dunk” error, though for other reasons the appeal won’t necessarily get the offender a lighter sentence).
But the “why not” question still stands. Do you think we’ve made a real moral advance? Or have we just reshuffled the deck on what we consider really wrong and then moved much of the unsettling vindictiveness out of public view (like inside prison walls)?