Friday, May 16, 2008
Hume on Punishment.
Alexander Pruss has an interesting post on wrongness and vice. In the course of it he says, "Hume thought we punished actions insofar as they were evidence of a vicious character." But I don't think this is quite right. What Hume actually thought was that we punish actions insofar as think the person who committed them was responsible for them; and, he holds, we do not determine this simply by considering the action itself, but only by considering it as caused by something in the person, namely, a 'character', i.e., character trait. Hume doesn't think we punish actions; he thinks we punish people for being in some way the wrong sort of people (namely, the sort of people who act in ways that are disagreeable and useless to society and self), and we don't punish people where we have reason to think that the person wasn't the actual cause of the action. (Thus, he argues, someone who rejected the notion of causal connection is committed to saying that everyone is, as he says in discussing liberty and necessity, "as pure and untainted, after having committed the most horrid crime, as at the first moment of his birth.") We need the connection, and the only connection Hume thinks relevant is causal. The person must cause the action or the action does not reflect on his moral character in any way (because it is only by causal reasoning that we draw any conclusions about character at all) -- and if it doesn't reflect on his moral character in any way, it obviously doesn't make sense to punish him for it. This, I think, is Hume's view.